Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Testing Education's Red Herring?


flickr CC image via timparkinson

I'm blown away by the volume of Twitter posts addressing the issue of testing in education. An inordinate amount of time and energy is being spent on the controversy, and I'm of the opinion that this is taking us away from the real task of getting on with creating effective strategies addressing the assessment challenge, and also from other educational issues that have been pushed aside by the volume of debate over testing. Before you get all riled up about the title of this post, hear me out just a bit.
  • I'm all for improving the manner in which we assess and evaluate students... we should never, never stop doing this.
  • There are undoubtedly strong arguments favouring alternatives to high-stakes, one shot win or lose forms of summative assessment.
  • We must evaluate students if we are to call ourselves professionals. To do so is responsible, necessary and important professional work.
I worry that the frenetic pace with which teachers around the world are slamming traditional forms of assessment is taking away from the real work of suggesting viable alternatives, and I don't mean alternatives that are so far removed from conventional wisdom that they don't have a chance in you know where of becoming common practice. There are logistical problems... how do we ensure that all kids are assessed fairly and comprehensively to establish appropriate educational transition plans, and to ensure that every one of them feels supported and enabled to approach their dreams without prejudice? This is no small task. I hear a lot of statements about what is wrong with the state of assessment in education, but beyond the regular "ban multiple choice exams" rhetoric, (perhaps there are viable alternatives,) I don't hear many really solid solutions to the problem... just bandwagon-jumping complaints addressing the inadequacy and inappropriateness of conventional testing methods.

Like it or not, education can't happen for free, and as long as taxpayers are paying government to provide an education system, there will be requirements for government to be accountable to them for their investment. This is not inherently bad really, is it? In turn, why shouldn't the education system be expected to be accountable for its investment in learning? It's not whether we should be accountable for what we do in education, but rather how we'll be accountable, that we should be discussing intelligently and openly. Whether students, parents, teachers or government, we should all be targeting the same outcomes surrounding and supporting student success... why not do this collaboratively in their best interests?

Cardinal rule  number one when making decisions affecting how we support kids- ask whether the decision is in their best interest to the exclusion of any other variable. If the answer is yes, you're likely on the right track, and I refuse to believe there is as agenda out there that intentionally damages kids... no matter the group, we need to default to a perspective that assumes people are doing the best they can for kids with the knowledge and experience they represent, and if that's not enough, we need to talk rationally about why, and where to go next.

Let's stop bandwagon-jumping and get talking about alternatives that have hope; alternatives that are viable enough to satisfy the testing gods on high because their effectiveness is undeniable. Let's be smarter than the problem. Let's do our homework, and instead of illuminating the problem, let's illuminate some solutions.
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