Friday, August 14, 2009

Who can pass tests?

There is a great great book call Tinkering Towards Utopia, in which the authors look at the history of school reform in the United States. One of the many interesting things they point is the the resiliency of the "grammar of schooling." That is, we all know what school is, what it looks like and what it feels like. Something like thirty students in desks, probably in row. One teacher, probably in the front of the room. A blackboard and chalk. Perhaps some sort of overhear projector. Chapters or units. Homework. Tests. Final exams. 95 is an A, and 55 is an F. Bells ringing to signal motion.

This is an idea I go back to a lot. I wonder how much of this is truly worthy, and how much is merely deeply ingrained habit.

For example, what about those tests? Be they unit or chapter tests, or final exams, what are they for? What do they mean? (To be honest, and I much more a high school educator than an elementary school educator, so the following should be taken in the context of high school life, high school students and high school tests.)

Do you think that you could go back and pass all your old final exams? What about the unit tests? Probably not, right? So, if you could not pass them later in life, what was the significance of giving them those tests and grading them as they did? And as we still do! In the long run -- and I hope the we think about education in the context of the long, in addition to thinking about the short and medium run -- what was the purpose of those tests? What does it mean that we demand students perform at a level that their parents cannot? What does it mean that we know that these students will only have this kind of mastery or skill for a short while?

It goes even further than that. Of course, the Algebra teacher can pass all of the algebra tests. But can s/he pass the Calculus test? Can the Calculus teacher pass the geometry test? Can s/he pass the French Revolution test?

What does it mean that we demand that students do things that their teachers cannot? And what does it mean that the students know probably know this? (I mean, how many students ask their English teachers for help with the math homework, or their science teachers for help with their social studies homework?)

I don't have answers to these questions, though I've been thinking about them for over twenty years. I remember when I first starting thinking about how I might be able to assess my students in a way that would better tap into their longer term retention, before I realized that such a thing would cause outrage from students, parents, colleagues and supervisors. This was, of course, decades before I reading Tinkering Towards Utopia.

I wish there was a place in our debates about education policy to address these sorts of questions. I deeply wish that there was a place in our pedagogical debates, teacher pre-service training and/or professional development to discuss matter likes this, and this one in particular. It would indicate a more thoughtful approach to education, one capable of truly revolutionary improvement.

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