Testing

How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform? How did our elected officials become convinced that measurement and data would fix the schools? Somehow our nation got off track in its efforts to improve education.  What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy:  Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience was needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.  -Diane Ravitch, The Life and Death of the Great American School System

Ravitch continues with a subtle, yet crucial point.

Tests should follow the curriculum. They should be based on the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it. (emphasis mine)

Oh how I wish our schools would listen to such wisdom.

Once a school begins down the path of being “test-driven,” or governed by the data and numbers, anxiety takes root among parents who then transfer that anxiety to their children.  Unfortunately, the things of greatest importance in education are sacrificed, forgotten, or neglected.  I believe this is evident when observing the order of Ravitch’s last statement.

When tests do not follow the curriculum, but precede it, a new standard dictates the nature of the classroom, by which I mean what is taught and how it is taught.  Who wrote the tests?  What standards are they following, determining, and prescribing? Does their concept of education align with our school?  Probably not.  How could it?  “They” do not even know who “our school” is, let alone the students in my class.

An important order exists within a school that should not be violated. The “test[s] should follow the curriculum” because the curriculum embodies the ideas on which we (any particular school or home) seek to nourish our children.

The curriculum is determined by the ideas we desire to instill, not tests prescribed by strangers.

In addition, the ideas are determined by our mission and vision of education.  If we believe that we must cultivate wisdom and virtue, what ideas will fulfill this task? Those ideas will define the curriculum we use because the curriculum must embody those ideas, and the curriculum in turn will determine the tests we (ought to) administer to our children.

The prescriptive direction flows one way.  We must exercise great caution concerning the tests we administer.  We must exercise great caution in how we interpret these tests, what we communicate to parents, and the reactive measures we institute as a result.

“The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.”

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Marking Readiness

In her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch outlines the primary causes behind today’s deterioration of our schools, and prescribes four vital courses to generate education reform.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to Ravitch, largely contributed to the problems plaguing today’s schools.  The vine that sprouted from this federally mandated reform was accountability.  Students must acquire a certain level of knowledge, and teachers must be held responsible for getting their students to that place.  The rat race had begun.

The fruit from this vine spoiled on at least three accounts.  When the primary objective is to produce immediate results, what more efficient model exists in our culture than the modern management networks applied in the business world?  Ravitch notes that business model management may work well in the corporate world, but education is not a business.

As school districts from NYC to San Diego adopted business models of management, teachers and principles went into survival mode in order to secure their jobs.  The single mark of concern rested with student test scores.  NCLB instituted the use of standardized testing in order to measure student progress.  The quickest and surest way for educators to succeed was to teach toward the test.  The test became king and determined the educational success or failure of our schools.

The problem with testing is that it has chipped away at the heart of education and produced illusory knowledge.  However, Ravitch does not entirely oppose the use of testing.  She devotes a small amount of time briefly tracing the short history of testing (roughly a hundred years) and the benefits it can yield when appropriately administered and evaluated.

Yet, the form into which testing has evolved seeks to measure knowledge according to prescribed standards.  Were these prescribed standards those carved by nature they would be appropriate for the human child and unalterable.  But they are not.  They are standards that continually flex to the ungrounded values espoused by temporal notions of progress.

For what end do we covet such notions of knowledge?  Readiness?  Readiness for what?  Is it possibly for a pre-scripted part that contributes not to what it is to be a Man or a Woman, but to the progress of an economic ideal upheld and valued in our current culture?

The purpose for testing in today’s educational institutions boils down to producing a readiness for either adulthood or employment.  The two are not the same, nor do they go together.  The one attends to the meaning of our humanity, the other to the product of our labor.

Before I became an educator I used to start colts for a world champion reigning cowhorse trainer.  My job was to take an unbroken colt (2 year old) and get him ready for the next phase of his training.  Sometimes that could take six months, three months, or sometimes one month.  It all depended on the horse.

At some point during a colt’s training (education) my boss would ask me, “Is the filly ready?”  He never asked me if she passed the test.  There was no test. Yet there were various indicators that marked her readiness.

Before she could work on a real cow she had to be able to turn, stop, backup, know her leads and how to change leads, relax her neck, lower her head, position her shoulders, ribs, and hips, pivot on her inside rear foot, tuck, spin, and leap – among other things.

Some horses were always better than others with these things, but none of these things were exercises foreign to the nature of a horse.  Any horse could learn to do these things because they were things that a horse does naturally.

As a trainer I was teaching the horse when to do them and how to perfect them, or rather to execute them with greater precision and finesse.

As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in his training and what he needed to learn.  When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like.  That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).

The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test.  In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if he had never learned a thing.  Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally.

We always trained a horse with a view to developing him both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” he was in his training.

A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises.  Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training.  The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.

Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness?  Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?”

Hamlet:             the readiness is all.

Arithmetic for a Slave

In their 1920 book How to Measure, Guy Wilson and Kremer Hoke describe what they call “the newer psychology in arithmetic.” They say (the bold parts are my emphasis):

The arithmetic of a generation ago was based upon a belief in formal discipline. The purpose was to develop general powers. While arithmetic is doubtless as useful as any other subject in developing general ability, it is now realized that responses are specific and that ability gained in one line contributes to success in another line only in so far as the two lines have elements in common. There is no such thing as general ability in a subject. There are, in fact, as many separate abilities in even a single subject as there are different specific responses. Arithmetic has been developed rapidly in line with this newer psychology and we have come to realize that each separate response in the useful tool materials of arithmetic must be mastered, and in turn must be tested if the diagnosis of the pupil’s ability is to be complete.

Now , let me say that these measures and tests of which Wilson and Hoke speak (they list 19 available tests on the following pages) are in some cases very valuable, especially when every single school age child is compelled to be in the classroom, willy or nilly. I do not mean, in this post, to question the value of their tests and the diagnoses their tests enabled. What I mean to challenge is the psychology behind the tests.

“There is,” they say, “no such thing as a general ability in a subject.” This statement asserts the fundamental premise of the progressive educator and renounces the fundamental psychology of the Christian and classical tradition. And where did this new psychology come from?

Oh, look! Here’s a big surprise: Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Whoodathunkit? And the theorist: Edward L. Thorndike, a behavioral psychologist who formulated laws of learning that, Diane Ravitch tells us in Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms, “were based on the observed connection between stimulus and response.” After all, the last thing the progressive educators wanted was to think about “metaphysical or traditional sources of authority,” when they could make themselves the authorities.

Ravitch’s description is exceptionally clear, as is all her writing, so let me share an extended quote with you:

Thorndike and his colleague Robert S. Woodworth conducted several experimnets to determine whether training one mental function would improve any other mental function. In one instance, subjects were asked to estimate teh length of various lines or estimate weights. In another, subjects were instructed to select certain letter combinations (e.g. the letters e and s) or words  or geometic figures. They also tested the influence of memorizing “on the general ability to memorize.” From their various experiments, the authors found that “the amount of improvement gotten by training in an allied function is small.” They concluded that, “It is misleading to speak of sense discrimination, attention, memory, observation, accuracy, quickness, etc., as multitudinous separate individual functions are referred to by any one of these words. These functions have little in common. There is no reason to suppose that any general change occurs corresponding to the words ‘improvement of the attention,’ or ‘of the power of observation,’ or ‘of accuracy.'” The alleged benefits of mental discipline, they held were “mythological, not real entities.” Rather than seeing the mind as a collection of separate functions (or “faculties”), they maintained that “the mind is, on the contrary, on its dynamic side a machine for making particular reactions to particular situations.” (Page 64 in Ravitch)

The effect of this research?

The Thorndike-Woodworth studies had a dramatic effect among pedagogical professors, who greeted them as proof  that the theory of mental discipline had been decisively ‘exploded.’ Parents and other members of the public continued to talk about ‘training the mind,’ but educationists believed that this had been revealed as a myth.

The issue of transfer of training became crucial to the viability of the academic curriculum, and the implications for the schools were mind-boggling. Some educational psychologists, citing Thorndike and Woodworth, insisted that nothing learned in one situation could be applied to any other, so that all training must be specific to the task at hand. Seen in this light, nothing taught in the school had any value or utility except to satisfy college admission requirements or to prepare those who planned to teach the same subject in the future or those who might have an occupational purpose for learning subjects such as algebra, chemistry, history, or German.

But we’re just getting warmed up:

Pedagogues quickly realized that Thorndike’s experiments had undermined the rationale for the traditional curriculum and that it was up to them to create a new education, one that would train the students for the real world of work.

Did you just feel the earth move? Did you just hear the shackles click? Ravitch continues:

Thorndike confidently asserted that scientific research had made obsolete the once-customary claims about “training of the reason, of the powers of observation, comparison and synthesis” or “training the faculties of perception and generalization” or “disciplining the senses.”… Now pedagogical science would decide which youngsters should study Latin, geometry, English, bookkeeping, cooking, sewing, or woodworking, and which subjects should be removed from the curriculum.

OK, fine, so what does this have to do with testing? I turn again to Ravitch:

Thorndike had faith in the scientific value of measurement, and he developed intelligence tests, aptitude tests, and every other kind of mental test. Only such faith, detached from any cultural values, could make possible the assumption that studies such as Latin and geometry had been decisively invalidated by laboratory experiments in which students memorized nonsense syllables or underlined meaningless letter combinations.

Because I believe that most of my readers will see the prima facie folly of Thorndike’s approach I won’t spend a great deal of time on the refutation (that isn’t really my point anyway, which I’ll come to shortly). But let me include Ravitch’s reference to Pedro Orata, who exposed Thorndike’s theories in his doctoral dissertation. This highlights some crucial points:

Orata… contended that Thorndike’s experiments had been profoundly misleading; that the efforts to replicate them had been inconclusive; that they tested only “mechanical habits,” which were of little value; and that Thorndike’s theory supported an apprenticeship system, not a democratic system of education. Orata pointed out that psychologists who had trained students to understand “meanings, concepts, and principles or generalizations” had demonstrated considerable transfer of training. When students understood what they were learning, why they were learning, and why it had implications ouside the classroom, they were likely to transfer what they had learned to new situations. Transfer of training occurs, Orata pointed out, when teachers make it a goal of instruction.

Thorndike’s experiments had been focused too narrowly on habit formation and drill, Orata complained, excluding any role for logical thinking and concept formation. His emphasis on the specialized nature of mental functions had made no provision for “disinterested study, for the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake,” or for gauging the ways in which studies of literature, science, and the arts taught importnat intangibles such as open-mindedness and appreciation of other cultures.

No, when you don’t value knowledge apart from its utility, I don’t suppose you would make provision for “knowledge for its own sake.” And yet, to this day, curricula still base their pedagogy on Thorndike’s careless, disrespectful quasi-science, probably because it gave power to people who develop abstract and rather arbitrary measures of students’ development. 

Freedom is rooted in the notion of ideas. The man who cannot see the truth of principles cannot make up his own mind. The man who cannot transfer learning from one domain to another cannot function on his own. Thorndike developed the psychological underpinnings of an education for slaves.  Wilson and Hoke affirmed the application of this slave’s training to measuring arithmetic.