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Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Educentric Testing Undermines America's Future

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Educentric Testing Undermines America's Future

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It's hard to think about something you've never thought about. That's what people like Joel Barker call "paradigm paralysis"--being mentally stuck in one inflexible pattern of definitions, beliefs, interpretations, and possibilities that allow no other alternatives. It's also called "closed-system thinking," and it's the basis for most human conflict, including genocide and war. People can only see the world through one set of lenses, and that lens becomes their definition of reality.

Such is the case with school reform in America today. It is suffering from a rarely perceived but insidious form of paradigm paralysis and closed-system thinking called Educentrism. Educentrism occurs when the fundamental assumptions, premises, questions, lines of argument, evidence, and conclusions drawn about education all emanate directly from schooling as it now exists. What schools are, how they are structured, what they teach, and how they do their business are the self-reinforcing starting points and bottom lines of all discussions and analyses. When you're caught in a vicious circle like this, there's no escape unless someone helps you see things differently.

Consequently, all proposed changes or improvements are framed inside that closed box of possibilities. And that leaves the participants trapped in a downward spiral of increasingly limited understandings and options--understandings that reinforce the feudal-, agrarian-, industrial-, and bureaucratic-age features that have been institutionalized and legalized in schools, but leave no room for information-age thinking and possibilities.

The intensity of this educentric juggernaut is so pervasive, and so widely accepted, that genuinely alternative perspectives are being ignored. It's not that there aren't any non-educentric voices crying out for a deeper look at the issues, it's that their voices have been completely drowned out by the din of people clamoring for more tests, better tests, higher scores, and financial compensation for sending children to a "school" that's not public--where they can be exempt from some of these same mandates. What America's generally well-educated educentric public understands and wants is what it's getting from policymakers and reformers eager to meet the demand. The bitter irony is that these reinforcers of the educational status quo have experienced major paradigm changes on the job and in the way their professions are now defined and operate.

From the White House, to the halls of Congress, to your state capital, to the halls of academe, to your local boardroom, the conversations are all about (archaic) "schools" and what must be done to make them either more effective, more responsive, more accountable, or a combination of the three--as long as they keep looking like, acting like, and sounding like schools as we have always known them. And the centerpiece of this educentric approach to improving schools is "tests"--paper-and-pencil exercises that tap the tiniest fraction of what it is important for students to know and be able to do in today's complex information age.

The horror of this testing onslaught is that it is forcing many enlightened and committed educators into a narrower and narrower box regarding the purposes and priorities of their schools. I hear again and again from excellent people in the field that virtually everything they do comes down to only one thing: How do their students "score" on "the test" that is used to compare every school and every district in their state?

The horror of this testing onslaught is that it is forcing many committed educators into a narrower box regarding the priorities of their schools.

Never mind the simplistic and completely misleading nature of it all, educators are feeling the pressure--not to do a better job, but to produce higher scores--because educentric Americans naively believe that test scores are "the measure" of student learning and school quality. Never mind huge differences in the educational backgrounds of the students' parents, the language spoken in the home, or the financial and programmatic discrepancies among schools--in America, test scores are us. And they'd better be "good," even if no one can explain what an individual score "means" in terms of precisely defined student capabilities, or which score clearly differentiates competence from incompetence.

Consequently, America's teachers are doing exactly what is "rational" if they want to keep their jobs: focusing exclusively and obsessively on the things that will probably be on the test, and drilling students over and over on that narrow range of things until they memorize it.

And the effects show. Just visit a high school sometime and look at the faces of students who face more and more content and no answer to the question: So what?

The irony, of course, is that education's critics, who five years ago were accusing schools of "dumbing down" their curricula and standards in an attempt to assure that all students could learn "successfully," are now themselves dumbing down our entire conception of what an education should be in an era when: (1) There's so much to learn that no one can keep track of it, and (2) The competencies needed to function effectively in the face of constant change are incredibly more complex than anything students can learn from a prescribed textbook or demonstrate on a paper-and-pencil test.

And the inevitable result will be a citizenry thoroughly schooled in "the basics" of bygone eras but incapable of understanding or addressing the realities and complexities of a world where yesterday's right answers have become today's obsolete information.

So the next time you hear either enlightened academ-ics, elected policymakers, or just plain folks talk about or advocate tests for the schools, flip your paradigm perspective out of educentric mode and ask them to explain their position. Here are 12 questions you can use for starters:

  • Exactly what, in precise words, does this test "measure"?
  • Exactly what, in precise words, does this test not measure?
  • Exactly what, in precise words, does this test not measure that is essential to students' success in the information age?
  • Why don't we measure and report that instead?
  • What exactly does a particular student's test score "mean"?
  • Is this one test score the student's total learning and achievement?
  • Which score clearly indicates that the student is "competent"?
  • Does one point less indicate "incompetence"?
  • What does this test or a given test score "prove" about the student, the school, or the district?
  • What exactly does this test score indicate about the student that needs to be improved?
  • What exactly does this test score indicate about the school or district that needs to be improved?
  • What does this test score indicate about a student's learning that his or her teachers don't already know?

See how far down the list you can get before you get a flustered, emotional reaction and a charge of being an un-American, rabble-rousing change agent. You won't become popular, but recognize that, by asking these questions, you are implicitly challenging one of the most deeply ingrained patterns of archaic paradigm paralysis still remaining in the information age. And you could be saving your part of America from the fatal consequences of mindless, educentric testing.


William G. Spady is the director of Breakthrough Learning Systems in Dillon, Colo. He is the author of Paradigm Lost: Reclaiming America's Educational Future and (with Charles Schwahn) Total Leaders: Applying the Best Future-Focused Change Strategies to Education, both published by the American Association of School Administrators.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 36,38

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