Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Open Letter to Amy Wilkins - The Education Trust

I read your article in the September 2012 District Administration journal (Testing isn't the Problem, p. 40-42) and must point out your suggestion that educational testing bears any similarities to weighing oneself is a bit unremarkable. First of all, as you point out in your article, kids "have taken tests – lots of them – for as long as we've had an education system." That is certainly a true assertion but if testing is directly related to academic success, one would have to ask, "Why aren't all of our students earning high grades and demonstrating high achievement levels?" After all, if more testing begets better results as your "bathroom scale" analogy suggests, we should not even be having this national debate about testing.

But more testing does not lead to better results anymore than weighing yourself more often will cause you to lose weight. I personally have struggled with maintaining my own weight, despite the fact that I have run ultramarathons and served a 22-year military career, and I can assure you weighing myself more often was not, nor will it ever be, a productive solution because it usually leads to some degree of negative feedback. In my mind I see the results typically as either negative or never good enough and given the growing pattern of overweight people in this country, I suspect most people experience the same. Typically, I have one or more good days followed by a bad one, but either way the scale never tells me why this pattern persists. I receive no constructive feedback from a scale. It stares at me and simply says, "You're a loser!" (and not in weight, either) over and over again.

In researching this idea several years back, I came across the following blog post:

What do you think about when you step on a scale? Some common thoughts:

·       "That can't be right."
·       "I knew I shouldn't have had that extra breath mint yesterday."
·       "Did I really gain 5 lbs since yesterday?"
·       "I haven't lost a single pound. What's wrong with me?"

Whatever you think about when you weigh yourself, one question you may not consider is this: Is weighing yourself helping you lose weight or standing in the way of success?

For some of you, the idea of not knowing your weight on a regular basis may seem as foreign as not knowing you hate lima beans. This is true despite the fact that a scale, unlike lima beans, has all kinds of emotions, thoughts and beliefs attached to it. The moment you step on it, you decide things about yourself: Whether you're fat or thin, whether you've succeeded or failed, perhaps even how you feel about yourself as a person.

For some people, the scale is an important and useful tool for maintaining weight loss but, for others, it can stand in the way of success.

Reasons to Ditch the Scale
Is the scale helping or hurting?
By Paige Waehner, Guide
Updated June 18, 2009

Your article assumes that students (and overweight people) can simply choose other behaviors as a result of testing or weighing themselves more often. Such an assumption demonstrates limited understanding of human behavior. Children and their teachers are not robots who respond to cold, hard results the same as cattle would to an electric prod. As humans, we make choices based on results and thousands of years of recorded history demonstrate those choices are not always positive.

I agree with Paige in that continuous testing, like weighing, will actually work against both teacher and student for the most part. There are always exceptions but those don't point the way to breaking this barrier for all. Using another analogy, if I were to attempt to become a sketch artist and each time I finished all or a portion of my work I received feedback that was less than inspiring or complementary, it wouldn't take long before I abandoned my pursuit. The emotional drain would sap my desire to learn.

On the other hand, if I were interested in creating something for my own purpose and had a way to determine if it worked or not by testing it out over time, I may continue plodding through experiment after experiment until I achieved success or determined the energy being expended wasn't worth it. However, if periodically during my learning process you came along and stopped me to administer a multiple-guess bubble test about what I have learned, I doubt it would add even an ounce of inspiration or drive me to seek the answers to the questions I scored low at. If I didn't have the ability to virtually ignore your test and treat it as just another venemus bug bite, I might even give up my pursuit as not worth the hassle.

Don't get me wrong – we all love feedback of some sort and younger generations get caught up in the feedback frenzy of video-gaming as well as traditional athletic pursuits. But feedback is not testing. Feedback is measured against the results I'm trying to achieve and basically says if you wish to achieve those results here's what you need to do differently. High stakes bubble testing on the other hand says, "I've spent all this time reading, writing, memorizing and practicing but I STILL SUCK!" Nothing from high stakes testing gives a student or teacher the feedback each needs to achieve their respective end goals.

You allude that testing should have an impact on the adults at the school, one way or another. In fact, I might argue those outcomes are the real motivation behind educational reformers like yourself and The Education Trust. You treat testing as if it actually is a cattle prod that will move the adults in a different direction based on results. In the meantime, students are left with the damaging results of incessant test results instead of productive feedback that will help them achieve their own learning goals. This abusive use of test measurement dates back to the World War I era when popular magazines and a growing industrial business world ganged up on traditional learning to regiment schools, create assembly-line learning processes, test the results regularly, and classify both educators and students as either successful or failures. Much of this type of reform – similar in many ways to what we see happening again today but in high tech fashion versus manufacturing – is what created our industrial model of education and led to the problems we have today. Will more testing and meddling by people who think they know what they are doing because they once attended school themselves lead to positive reform? I think not, and I firmly believe that positions like yours and The Education Trust are simply leading us further over the cliff.


David Britten
Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, Retired
Superintendent of Schools
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools

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