Tuesday, October 04, 2005


I would like to say a little bit about the controversy swirling, swirling, swirling around mandated state testing.

My student teaching school began its life exempt from the state tests because it is known as a "portfolio school." Instead of passing the tests to graduate, seniors compile collections of their work in each of six subject areas: math, science, English, history, art, and foreign language. They present their work to three or more teachers, who ask the student questions. The students also have to participate in "roundtables," in which they discuss and debate with other students on various topics.

Some of these pieces of work seem fine to me. I like the idea of structured debates (and by structured I mean debates where swearing, yelling, and standing up is discouraged), because one will encounter that type of situation in college. Also, I think something like a portfolio could help a child see how far he/she has come since ninth grade (hopefully it farther than the number of yards the Vikings have been getting in recent games) and provide a sense of closure or accomplishment.

However, there are a couple dangerous loopholes to this system. Many of the kids really do not have the skills they should have to graduate from high school and, hopefully, go on to college. These gaps show up when you test them, but they are able to hide them or downplay their significance in a portfolio of work. Ignoring these weaknesses only hurts the child in the long run.

Not only does this system allow a child to slip through lacking what he/she needs in the future, it lets the school get away with the fact that they haven't given him/her those skills. At my student teaching school, and at many schools, everyone hates the state standards. The tests are evil demons that are infecting the world with their correct answers and muliple choice bubble charts. The other major objection is that teaching what the state demands takes away from other types of lessons, and can pretty much dictate the entire curriculum.

Here's the thing. In the education business, we are thinking only about the period in a child's life from kindergarten through twelfth grade. We want to do the best job we can, but after that, we're off the hook. But the state has to worry about people their whole dang lives. Politicians are held responsible for people's unemployment, poverty, housing, health care, etc etc. So the state wants high schools turning out kids who have real skills so that they can fill the demands of the current labor market, keep up with the changing economy, be able to afford housing, be able to take care of their families, afford preventative health care, etc. These are major, major interests for the state. Schools are uniquely placed to be able to vault kids out of an impoverished background into the kind of self-sufficiency that makes things easier for government and better for society.

In education, we get too caught up with the here and now. We see these kids every day, and we care about them. They aren't cogs in the education machine to us, they are living, breathing, fun, moody, obnoxious children. So it's hard to be objective with them. It's hard to think like the state does. We not only want to educate them, we want to enrich their lives. We want them to really understand what it means for an object to have torque, not just to know how to calculate for it. We care about their character development, and their happiness, and how much they like us as teachers. Worst of all, we want to make a difference.

Idealism, and love for the kids, and really actually caring can, paradoxically, doom a child. We, who know the kid, don't want to see him struggle and fail. We don't want to see him angry at us, we don't want to see his mean streak or his anti-authoritarianism. So we don't push him in the ways that will elicit strong emotions. We don't make him take tests, we play to his strengths, we shy away from his weaknesses, we let him be. When the state, who doesn't know him, tries to come in and force us (and him) to see what he can really do, we are angry. "But they don't know him," we think. He can't do any math, and his literacy skills are weak, but he is so good at X. And plus, they don't know his background.

But in this case, and it's a rare one, the government seems to be right. It's not the here and now that we should be worried about. Kids are the short-sighted ones, but we cannot be. We have to think longer-term. We should not be concerned with his three or four years with us, but his life. We have to evaluate what he needs to do to pass those tests, to have those skills, and then ask, plead, force, or cajole him into doing it. Maybe he'll hate us. And he might even be driven to another school. But he might not. He might stay, hate us, struggle under our all-knowing thumb, be in the principal's office every week, fail before he succeeds, etc. But in the end he might just pass those tests and come out a goddam educated person. And maybe he'll realize what happened and maybe not. But we will have done our job in society, which is to produce people who have skills for college and jobs and life.

One common objection to all this is that handing the kid academic skills without, like, character education or cooperative skills means he'll be some kind of asocial smart freak who can't interact with others. However, I don't really think schools are the most effective transmitters of social or citizenship skills. Those things come from families, clubs, and sports teams. Schools can't be responsible for everything. That they sort of are held responsible for everything is how they duck out of doing their real job: educating. Secondly, I think a guy who has enough skills to get through college and find a good job is going to be a better citizen anyway than someone who was taught through cooperative learning but wasn't able to graduate from high school, and now works as a cashier. Most likely that guy does not like his society very much, and doesn't really want to be a good citizen. I, for one, don't blame him. We failed.

The fact is that 98% of kids at good magnet schools pass the state tests, while like 30% do at a lot of regular high schools. That is shameful and ridiculous. Maybe not everyone will pass the first time, and magnet schools will always have an advantage. But they shouldn't have a 60+% advantage. The kids there aren't that smart. The fact is, they are expected to pass those tests, they are taught so they have the skills to, and they do.

Now, at my school, the kids have to take part of the state tests, but not all. However, I think they are in political hot water because of the renewal of the standards movement both at the state and national levels. I hate to say that George Bush is in the right ballpark on anything, so I will give this one to the bill's cosponsor (I think) Ted Kennedy. Accountability for schools means skills for kids. That's good, people.


At October 04, 2005 10:00 AM, Blogger Jenny D. said...

The original supporter of testing was Ted's older brother Robert F. Kennedy. He was furious when educrats declined to include testing in the original enactment of Title I (now NCLB) back in 1965. I've linked to RFK's testimony on my weblog. Look under the blogroll on the right for links.

At October 04, 2005 3:21 PM, Blogger Suzi said...

From my experience testing is a necessary evil. It can sometimes give a student the appearance of accomplishment (such as when I passed my Geometry state final with an 83) even when they don't have it. But usually it lets folks know what they can do and what they need to work on.

I don't like the testing that identifies schools because I have seen students asked not to attend school on the day of testing in order to raise the testing scores of the schools. That's a bit ridiculous. Obviously the teachers know who needs more work, but instead of giving it to them, they ask them to stay home.

I found your post quite interesting.

At October 04, 2005 4:24 PM, Anonymous Sherman Dorn said...

Have you read any of Ted Sizer's Horace books? You might well like his discussion of compromises (or what others in his 1980s research group called "treaties" between students and educators).

My concern is not with the existence of testing but the unimaginative uses to which it's put in the "kill the mosquito with a bazooka" philosophy that's prominent in education reform. To paraphrase from the former FEMA director, Who could possibly have imagined that making school funding ride on standardized tests would lead to test-prep instead of instruction???

For one alternative, head to the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring. I'm not convinced that it's appropriate over grade 6 or so, but it's an example of assessment that has a relatively light footprint in the classroom with potentially big results. (Yes, I've seen progress monitoring, or curriculum-based measurement, in action or, rather, in use.)

One of the problems at this point with testing is that we have a fairly firm image of what "real testing" consists of: annual tests with very high security requirements. When coupled with centralized consequences, it frequently leads to the type of curriculum narrowing and triage that critics of NCLB point to. Is there another way to hold schools' feet to the fire in terms of a decent education and equity? I think so. But it would require opening up the definition of accountability.

At October 05, 2005 5:13 AM, Anonymous Portnoy's Complaint said...

To the Administrator:

The fact that you believe something to be false does not justify you from removing it from a discussion board, even from your own blog. As long as the post is not abusive, and is reasonably on point, its removal from consideration only serves to not allow other people to consider its validity and discuss it if they want to, which is how freedom of speech is supposed to operate. An idea can be right or wrong, it can be discussed or ignored, but to not allow others to see it is indicative of the kind of not-open-to-discussion closedmindedness that keeps beauracratic institutions from solving their problems, which of course, is part of the problem in our schools..... My guess is that you are uncomfortable with the idea of racial differences. But here are some links to the latest research on race (sorry, the links didn't make it through the cut and paste, but they are easily googled). What if someone on this board would like to read them? Are you going to deny them that opportunity?

2 Scholarly Articles Diverge on Role of Race in Medicine  NYT, March 20, 2003

"A view widespread among many social scientists, endorsed in official statements by the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association, is that race is not a valid biological concept. But biologists, particularly the population geneticists who study genetic variation, have found that there is a structure in the human population. The structure is a family tree showing separate branches for Africans, Caucasians (Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent), East Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians.

Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease, NYT, July 30, 2002

"Challenging the widely held view that race is a 'biologically meaningless' concept, a leading population geneticist says that race is helpful for understanding ethnic differences in disease and response to drugs. The geneticist, Dr. Neil Risch of Stanford University, says that genetic differences have arisen among people living on different continents and that race, referring to geographically based ancestry, is a valid way of categorizing these differences."

A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race NYT, Oct 8, 2002

"Two physical anthropologists have reanalyzed data gathered by Franz Boas, a founder of American anthropology, and report that he erred in saying environment influenced human head shape. Boas's data, the two scientists say, show almost no such effect. The reanalysis bears on whether craniometrics, the measurement of skull shape, can validly identify ethnic origin…

" ‘I have used Boas's study to fight what I guess could be considered racist approaches to anthropology,’ said Dr. David Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. ‘I have to say I am shocked at the findings.’

"Forensic anthropologists believe that by taking some 90 measurements of a skull they can correctly assign its owner's continent of origin - broadly speaking, its race, though many anthropologists prefer not to use that term - with 80 percent accuracy."

“Researchers at the University of Utah's anthropology department investigated a possible link between genetic illnesses and above-average intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews. They suggest both are the result of natural selection for enhanced brainpower.”

Brain May Still Be Evolving, Studies Hint


Two genes involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, researchers say, leading to the surprising suggestion that the brain is still undergoing rapid evolution.

A new allele arose about 37,000 years ago, although it could have appeared as early as 60,000 or as late as 14,000 years ago. About 70 percent of people in most European and East Asian populations carry this allele of the gene, but it is much rarer in most sub-Saharan Africans.

Study Finds Genetic Link Between Intelligence and Size of Some Regions of the Brain, NYT, November 5, 2001

"Lunging into the roiled waters of human intelligence and its heritability, brain scientists say they have found that the size of certain regions of the brain is under tight genetic control and that the larger these regions are the higher is intelligence."

Y Chromosome Bears Witness to Story of the Jewish Diaspora, NYT May 9, 2000

"With a new technique based on the male or Y chromosome, biologists have traced the diaspora of Jewish populations from the dispersals that began in 586 B.C. to the modern communities of Europe and the Middle East. The analysis provides genetic witness that these communities have, to a remarkable extent, retained their biological identity separate from their host populations, evidence of relatively little intermarriage or conversion into Judaism over the centuries."

For Sale: A DNA Test to Measure Racial Mix, NYT, October 1, 2002

"A company in Sarasota, Fla., is offering a DNA test that it says will measure customers' racial ancestry and their ancestral proportions if they are of mixed race."

Genome Mappers Navigate the Tricky Terrain of Race NYT, July 20, 2001

"Scientists planning the next phase of the human genome project are being forced to confront a treacherous issue: the genetic differences between human races."

Gene Study Identifies 5 Main Human Populations NYT, December 20, 2002

"Scientists studying the DNA of 52 human groups from around the world have concluded that people belong to five principal groups corresponding to the major geographical regions of the world: Africa, Europe, Asia, Melanesia and the Americas. The study, based on scans of the whole human genome, is the most thorough to look for patterns corresponding to major geographical regions. These regions broadly correspond with popular notions of race, the researchers said in interviews."

The Palette of Humankind NYT, December 24, 2002

"Humankind falls into five continental groups - broadly equivalent to the common conception of races - when a computer is asked to sort DNA data from people from

Charles Darwin’s the Descent of Man

"... the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other -- as in the texture of hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatization and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotions, but partly in their intellectual faculties."

When I say that there is no longer any serious scientific debate about whether racial differences exist, only the degree and kind of those differences, I mean it:

I'll say it again. The reason why facts are often ignored in favor of general concepts and themes is because the facts that are available to us don't always support the prevailing ideology. If facts contradict the ideology to which we are trying to indoctrinate our children, whether that ideology be creationism that flies in the face of evolutionary theory, or modern theories on race that fly in the face of evolutionary theory, then you essentially have to find a way to justify not teaching the facts.

The facts need to be on the table so that our children can consider the possibility that differences in behavior are not all neccearilly the result of culture or environment.


Post a Comment

<< Home