Thursday, May 17, 2012

Testing our souls

My son stands on the corner, holding a bright yellow sign in front of passing vehicles
"Standardized testing made off with my SOUL!" the hand-printed letters read. "Honk if Your Child Deserves Better."

I watch him thrust the bright rectangle forward, working to catch each driver's roving eye, beaming ear to ear at the sound of each responsive beep. His fellow demonstrators, gathered to protest the American Legislative Exchange Council summit here in Charlotte, ply the sidewalk behind him. I can't help grinning. My son's soul remains his own – for now.
Not that test companies aren't trying.
Case in point: the now-infamous Pearson, Inc. eighth-grade exam item involving a race between a hare and a talking pineapple – the item pulled by New York State officials after students and parents complained that neither the passage nor its questions made any sense.
In brief, the item involves a story about a pineapple who challenges a hare to a race. A group of other animals decides the pineapple will use some secret trick to win, but the pineapple never moves and the hare triumphs easily. The moral? "Pineapples don't have sleeves." You are welcome to read the whole thing for yourself, but I promise you that it makes no more sense when told in full.

The test does all right with basic questions, such as: "Before the race, how did the animals feel about the pineapple?" But when it reaches the questions that are supposed to measure higher-level thinking, things go badly wrong.
What really gets me is the question about wisdom. I fear it takes a sad and narrow soul to imagine that wisdom could lurk within the restricted confines of badly written texts and multiple-choice answers, even those which don't involve talking pineapples. Yet test-makers are always asking students to locate it.

It's not simply that the phrase that Pearson deems to be the "wisest" – the owl's "Pineapples don't have sleeves" – is far from any kind of wisdom with which I'm familiar. It's the rationale that Pearson's Chief Measurement Officer, Dr. Jon S. Twing, provided for the answer: 
The owl declares that "Pineapples don’t have sleeves," which is a factually accurate statement. This statement is also presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal.
(It's tempting to note here that Dr. Twing has violated a cardinal rule of careful reading: the question didn't ask which animal was the wisest, it asked which spoke the wisest words. But I digress.)
Given that the hare also makes a "factually accurate" statement – "You're not even an animal! You're a tropical fruit!" ­– I'm going to deploy my own carefully honed powers of deduction and conclude that for Pearson and for Dr. Twing, the use of the sleeve comment as the story's "moral" clinched its status as the "wisest."
As one of my favorite movie characters (Bunty from Chicken Run) puts it: 

In all my life, I've never heard such a fantastic 

I want my son to learn to think for himself. I don't want him to "infer" that a silly statement is somehow wise because the author of a story that makes no sense decided to use it as the "moral."
This is one of the major problems with these tests: the lack of substance. Students are expected to arrive at the "right" answers not by real thinking, but by responding to clues planted by the authors. Legions of sophisticated statistical tools are then used in misguided efforts to wring meaning out of test scores that are hollow at their core.
Because we have made the stakes riding on tests so high – they can determine whether students move from grade to grade, whether teachers keep their jobs, whether schools remain open – we are teaching a whole generation of our citizens that manipulating artificial clues found in prepared texts is more important than grappling with the far thornier dilemmas of real life.
There is currently a lot of hand-wringing about how badly American students do on exams like these. But perhaps they're simply smarter than we give them credit for. Perhaps they haven't been deluded into playing the games that produce high test scores and instead search for real meaning – a quest destined for futility amid the forest of windmills the test-makers have so assiduously constructed. 

Recently, I joined with a group of national organizations seeking to restore some sanity to the way we assess quality in education. We've drawn up a resolution that calls on state and federal officials to end the high-stakes testing that has so significantly warped American education.
This kind of testing has woven itself so deeply into the system that it's going to take all of us, working together, to bring our leaders to their senses and get them to change their policies. Please join us.
Honk if your child – if every child – deserves better.