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An alternative title for Part 2 of this article might be "Evaluating Without Testing: Caring for Children's Minds." In Part 1, I tried to demonstrate that the core of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act is a fool's errand, based on testing all manner of things that don't matter to the human mind and spirit. I now offer the classroom teacher and concerned citizens something beyond mindless tests and meaningless numbers for evaluating children. It might even be argued that that one is not a qualified teacher if he or she fails to practice much of what is said here. I'm not trying to boast, but to show the classroom through the eyes of a teacher who took his job seriously, namely myself. Kindly allow the ideas to speak for themselves, and resonate if they will.
"I don't see how a teacher can know what's going on without
regular testing," my principal confided in me. This was years ago, and we had
just attended a meeting on adopting a new testing program for our elementary
school. I deftly changed the subject, so I wouldn't have to express my opinion.
After all I'd only been in the school six months, and it didn't seem like a
bright idea to make waves in unfamiliar water.
But my principal's words burned in my head that evening. I
argued with myself that he needed to hear the view of a classroom teacher on
this (I had taught for several years in other schools). I concluded that the
principal seemed open-minded and progressive enough to handle it, since he
hired me, after all, and I felt I had bared my soul in our interviews.
Next morning I handed him some stapled pages with an oral
warning: "I suspect you'll disagree, but I honestly don't think regular testing
is a good idea. The first part of this tells why, and the second part gives
some alternatives. I'd like to get your reaction after you've had a chance to
read it over."
Side one read as follows (I amended the list and clarified
certain points for this article).
Why Routine Testing is a deterrent to good teaching:
- Time spent testing is time directly subtracted from the teaching process. If you test for two hours a week, that's eighty hours a school year (two hours times forty weeks), or twenty days of prime instructional time (allowing four hours a day as prime teaching time).
- Time spent grading is time subtracted from curriculum planning. A teacher has limited time and should devote out of class time to devising strategies to make learning interesting.
- Testing rarely alters what is practiced in the classroom, in spite of theoretical claims to the contrary.
- Any teacher who has their finger "on the classroom pulse' knows what's working and what isn't.
- There are no tests fine enough to measure much of the gradual progress, with its endless progressions and regressions, and brief and lengthy plateaus, especially in areas like handwriting, creative writing, and reading.
- Testing often causes anxiety and mental inhibition. Understandably, since poor grades define those who are likely to become life-time losers. Incidentally, the lower half of the students in a class on any test are, by definition, "below average."
- Poor grades can and do become self-fulfilling prophecies, by devastating the self-image at an early age. Perhaps this is related to a statement made by the late Buckminister Fuller. He pointed out, seriously, that "Everyone is born a genius, but some are de-genuised a little sooner than others."
- Kids who you'd like to be most influenced by tests, especially in the lower grades, are almost always the ones to whom a test means little or nothing--and their bad habits, attitudes and self-image are reinforced each time they take a test.
- We are not grading eggs, which come in three sizes. Humans are infinitely faceted and do care which box they go into. One year, the highlight of my career, I was number one in my college class (through a surge of overachievement that I can no longer explain). It swelled my head nicely, but even then I wondered if it wasn't a steep price to pay for the 400 plus students who had someone ahead of them. And what did this do to the guy at the bottom, whom I happened to know? Is intellectual fascism any less worse than sexism or apartheid?
- Record keeping is a secretarial skill that ought to be required only in moderate doses by people trained to be teachers (let us leave that topic for another day).