Education Opinion

The First Hurdle

By Peter Greene — May 13, 2015 4 min read
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Watching a roomful of students slog through Pennsylvania’s algebra-flavored Big Standardized Test today, I’m reminded of one of the many flawed assumptions of test promoters.

Before you can compile the test answers, before you can crunch the numbers and sift the data and build your house of test-driven cards-- before you can do all that, you have a first hurdle to fling yourself over.

The students taking the test have to care.

Of all the bizarre, imaginary scenarios that test-promoters believe, this is perhaps the most reality impaired: a room full of sixteen year olds coming to school and thinking, “Boy, I cannot wait to do my very best on these. I can think of nothing more important to me right now than making sure that the state and federal government have accurate data about the kind of job my school is doing.”

All discussions of test-generated data start with the assumption that the students were really trying, that they really wanted to do the very best that they could. I do not know where that assumption comes from. I can’t help noticing that while many reformsters are parents, very few are parents of teenagers.

People often act as if teenagers are mysterious, otherworldly creatures. I’ve spent my entire life around teens, and I can tell you the secret to understanding them-- they are human beings. That’s it. Teens are essentially rough cut version of their adult selves with some impulse control and long-term vision issues. But they’re just people.

So imagine the following scenario. At work, you are periodically required to complete a seris of tasks. These tasks are not really related to your usual job, and what connection they do have is only to a very small sliver of your total job. Performing these tasks does not help you do your job better, nor does it help your supervisor lead you. The tasks themselves are long and boring and require your actual work to come to a halt for days at a time. There’s no benefit at all to doing really well; you just need to do well enough so that you can be done and get back to your regular work.

I would present you with a clearer analogy, but there really isn’t anything like BS Testing in the adult world. Maybe when you have to go on line and watch one of those workplace slide shows and take an idiot quiz at the end (True or False: Stealing equipment from the office is okay.)

In that situation, do you imagine that you are trying your hardest, doing your best, or caring at all?

Test promoters have spent so much time pushing PR about the high noble valuable purposes of the BS Test that they’ve convinced themselves that students believe it, too. They do not.

In fact, getting older students to take any test seriously has always been one of the challenges of school (for the littler ones, who would eat fried weasel brains just to make the beloved Miss Othmar happy, motivation is less of a challenge). The entire institution is organized to coerce students into telling us what we want to know. You can’t “pass” this course unless you try on this test. You can’t “pass” this grade until you “pass” the course. This is why that smart-ass smart kid drives some of her teachers into a rage-- they all know she’s not trying at all, but they don’t have enough leverage to get her to really care about doing her best.

A small sub-industry of BS Testing has sprung up. Pep rallies. Bribes. Threats. Up the road, an administrator hauled all of students into an auditorium just to berate them for their lackluster test efforts. Occasionally, there’s success-- the SAT and ACT command fear and attention because students are convinced that Big Things are riding on the test results. This is why BS Tests are destined to be high stakes-- because it’s the only way we can think of to make students at least pretend to care.

And if the students don’t care, the data aren’t there.

Behind the test results are not students intent on showing The State what they know, but students with a hundred other thoughts in their mind, and not one of them was “Boy, this is really important.”

The BS Tests offer nothing relevant or beneficial to students, and our older students are perfectly capable of seeing that. The flop-sweaty pep rallies and super-secret swears of silence just underline that the whole exercise is a waste of their time, and guess what-- teenagers don’t react any better to having their time wasted than anyone else.

You can say that it’s my job to fix that, my job to convince them that the BS Test is Valuable and Important and they should totally care, that because I have the classroom relationship with them, I have the juice to make it happen. But the very first step in that relationship with my students came last fall on Day One, when I promised them several things including 1) I would never willingly waste their time and 2) I would never lie to them.

So here we sit, stuck at the first hurdle, a room full of teens calculating just how much effort and care they can afford to throw at what appears to be a pointless waste of their time. I wish very test-touting reformster who ever tried to sell the data as being True and Real and Valuable had to sit here with me and actually watch these students take the test. Better yet, I wish those reformsters had to apologize to my students for wasting their time.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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