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.”

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.

not on the test

I’m guessing this one will get around or even maybe already has, but I have to go ahead and post it here. My first successful video blog!. Enjoy (and thanks to Steve Elliott for letting me know about it):

Standardized tests vs. the tradition

The Christian classical educator does not determine his success by measurable academic or developmental outcomes, because he comes at it from a different angle. Those are trivial and inevitable compared to what really matters.

Instead, the Christian classical educator assesses his success by the simple objective of whether he has succeeded in handing on the tradition to the student. Has the student received it into his soul and is he now able to pass it on to the next generation.

The difference is that the Christian classical educator embraces both faith and ignorance, while the conventional educator fears both.

The Christian classical educator has faith in the tradition as embodied in great works of art and books and experiences. The conventional educator does not trust the tradition. He thinks it is fascist, sexist, oppressive, etc. Of course, that is because he hasn’t had it handed to him.

The Christian classical educator embraces his ignorance too. He recognizes perfectly well that he can know almost nothing about what the tradition is doing right here and now in the child. He can certainly measure whether a child is developing in a healthy manner, but that is more easily done by particular observation of  a particular child in a human relationship. He recognizes the danger that measurement will distract from what really matters.

Ironically, of course, by tending to the health of the child’s soul and body, the Christian classical educator produces a child who scores higher on the standardized tests. Which leads the school to celebrate these scores more than they merit, thus distracting the activities of the school from the tradition and gradually converting the Christian classical school into a hollow shell.

Unless it is led by men and women of clarity and courage.

Static vs. Dynamic assessment

There are two common reasons for testing. First, the static fashion of determining roughly (and often rather arbitrarily) what students have learned and can repeat from the curriculum. Second, the dynamic fashion of assessing what has been learned so the teacher can adjust to the realities of the students’ experience. A third reason is, of course, to assess students for college admissions or their status as compared to other students, but this standardized mode of testing is so pedagogically problematic and even vulgar that I find it hard to mention it.

The first is by far the most common. It is driven by the need to produce data for administrative supervisors and has minimal value as an aid to student learning.

The second is less common in one sense, but on the other hand, every good teacher is doing it continually. So it is less formally common, but informally, I hope, much more common. It is certainly more necessary.

If teaching involves a relationship, one would hope that the teacher is in a continual interaction with the student so as to adjust her teaching according to teh circumstances and reality of the actual student in her presence instead of a theoretical student who fits somewhere on a bell curve.

I refer the reader to this article at Edweek on how some schools are even formalizing what I shall call “dynamic assessment”: Testing to Teach: Using Assessment to Shape Instruction

Here at CiRCE, we apply dynamic assessment in the way we teach The Lost Tools of Writing.

A good solution

A while ago I posted on an article from Wendell Berry in which he presented a model of thinking that seems to me to be essential to understanding and living with reality. It’s an ancient way of thinking, rooted in accepting our limits and loving wisdom; and it’s a way of thinking that seems to have been set aside by neglect. We simply don’t apply this common sense to our thoughts any more.

The basic idea is that we can’t understand what we are studying or thinking about if we don’t see it in its relations to the realities around it. He was applying his thoughts to farming and agriculture. I would like to apply them to education.

I found a post from my earlier and lost blog on Hirsch and Gardner that I resurrected and inserted below. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can illustrate my point. The IQ test was developed in early 20th century to measure people’s intelligence in relation to other people. What benefits they legitimately hoped to derive from this effort we can wonder. Certainly it created a number of problems, not least of which was the rather truncated view of intelligence it encouraged people to hold.

Practically speaking, IQ holds up a certain kind of intelligence as the summa of intelligence and treats the rest as if it doesn’t exist (which approximates a fine definition of the literal meaning of the word “despise”). It took about 60 years for somebody to develop a theory that could displace the limitations of the theory of IQ, and that was Howard Gardner with his notion of multiple intelligences.

In my view, both theories are too analytical and will be harmful in the hands of the superficial thinkers who make most of our educational decisions. Wise men and women will be able to benefit from both.

The immediate point I am trying to make is that IQ treated a certain kind of analytical intelligence as the whole of intelligence, disregarded what stood outside of its measuring system, and therefore harmed people measured by it. In other words, it created a structure of thought and action that was incapable of fulfilling the thinkers responsibility to the realities that remained outside the system.

That serves as a pretty good summary of what bothers me most about modernist thought. If its tools don’t detect something, it concludes that the thing doesn’t exist. Concluding that it doesn’t exist, it ignores that thing. But that thing might well be the well spring of life for what is being studied. The modernist can never find this out, because the faculties of perception have been shuttered.

As Berry put it: “A bad solution is bad, then, because it acts destructively upon the larger patters in which it is contained. It acts destructively upon those patterns, most likely, because it is formed in ignorance or disregard of them…. A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns.”

Here’s the point: we Christian classical educators make much of our desire to teach children how to think. The patterns of our thought are every bit as vital as the content. We must think in patterns that reflect reality. What Berry is describing is just such a pattern, and it is one that was practiced until well into the Enlightenment. Therefore, our schools must be structured to teach children to think in patterns like this.

We move in this direction when we integrate our curricula, but we err when we mistake overlapping for integration. Integration never challenges the integrity of the subject, the teacher, or the student.

In Berry’s essay he proposes 14 principles that we must follow to find a “good solution.” I hope to blog on them as they relate to school over the next few weeks.