Posted in testing on 26/11/2006|
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heard at the NCTE…
Naomi Shibab Nye spoke and mentioned that New York uses one of her stories in their Regent’s Exam.
She took the test.
On all but three of the questions, she was completely unable to figure out which of the choices was the correct one. Often, she felt that there were two completely logical answers–either of which she could have picked.
And we wonder why kids have such a hard time on these tests!
(I had to hear this 2nd hand because my district has disallowed all travel to conferences out of state (even if the teacher offers to pay for the sub and the conference)–I want to go next year! How do they expect us to get better if we aren’t allowed to go out and learn from other teachers?)
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I was distracted from Frank Smith’s Writing and the Writer (also excellent! go read!) by Education and the Cult of Efficiency. This book, published in the 1960’s, details the advent of the “business ideal” of teaching–and the struggle of public education to simultaneously be “efficient” and educational.
I enjoyed this book on a number of levels. I enjoy reading history, and I’m woefully lacking in my knowledge of the history of public education. This book focuses on the time period from 1900-1930 when the “cult of efficiency” and the glorification of business and monetary success first began and took hold of the public education system. Callahan does an excellent job of pointing out the positives of efficiency (breaking up monopolies, creating a public awareness of what business was doing) and detailing the gradual encroachment of business into public education.
The emphasis on “efficiency” affected schools deeply. Much of the direct effect came from the turnover in school boards–which went from self-termed “scholars and civil servants” to being filled more and more by local business leaders. At the direction of the school boards, studies were done to discover the most efficient way to “run” a school.
It must be noted (and Callahan does) that “running” a school efficiently has little (if anything) to do with educating well. In fact, the idea of efficiency was one that encouraged an explosion in class sizes that are still being felt today. What is more efficient than cutting down the number of teachers and allowing them to teach more students? In fact, one principal pointed out that “love of learning is now to be discouraged because it brings down efficiency.” These studies also encouraged efficient building–prompting schools to create cookie-cutter classrooms and losing out on a number of specialized rooms like woodshop, sewing, and cooking that require “non-standard” set-ups.
This book is incredibly relevant today. The echoes of “efficiency” cannot help but be felt in discussions of NCLB and “basic skills.” Nothing is ever truly the root of all evils, and NCLB is no different, it is merely today’s incarnation of yesterday’s demands for all schools to educate students for “the business of tomorrow.” In addition, this book made me question what I am teaching my own students. Do I emphasize success as something that can only be calculated monetarily? Am I doing my part to encourage inefficiency and exploration? In a time when teachers and students are feeling more and more like “cogs” in a machine, what can we do to move the focus from counting attendance to inspiring creativity?
It seems a daunting task.
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I was astounded to see a BBC news headline that read “Testing ‘should be intesified'”. The idea that the high-stakes testing and attitudes that have roiled the US (and engendered NCLB and other “skills” tests) have reached England is not a shocking one–after all, they have traditionally had the GCSE and A level tests. However, as these tests are used to score the schools rather than the teachers, they are not the same sort of *how good is jane at physics* tests that are familiar to those in the UK school system. The responsibility for the pass or fail of the tests has moved away from the students to the teachers. This shift cannot be over-emphasized. Where previously the tests were seen as a test of the students’ abilities, (however short-sighted and lacking that may be) they have now become tests of schools and whether or not they are doing the job.
This article struck me because it means that testing has now become something divorced from the students themselves. Although we continually talk about students needing to show basic skills and learn them before they graduate, the dialogue never includes the realization that tests teach absolutely nothing. Tests are not learning tools, they are assessment tools, and that means that each week spent on testing is a week not spent on learning. The discussion about whether these tests even assess what happens in the classroom aside, we should ask ourselves, as educators, if we can let anymore of our time be taken–anywhere. Clearly this is not a problem just in the UK, and the spin that tests somehow help learning must be addressed here in the US as well. The dialogue and language used in these discussions has been taken away from teachers and students, and it is too important to give up. To have a thoughtful discussion on testing, we must make sure we are not confusing it (or using it as a substitute for) learning.
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