'Just the Facts, Ma'am': Tests vs. Intuition

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My cat was driving me nuts. After five years of impeccable personal habits, he stopped using the litterbox. Before facing the ultimate decision of choosing between husband and pet, I lugged the (four-legged) beast off to the vet's. The vet looked into the cat's ears, stroked his own chin, and said, "Well, it's hard to tell about these things. It could be behavioral or it could be medical. Let's wait and see." For that, the vet charged me 17 bucks and advised me to have a good day. It's called professional services.

Would that we teachers had that kind of chutzpah. Or is it, rather, the confidence to admit there are certain things we cannot know, not right this minute anyway? We need the courage to say that we and the children need some wait-and-see time before passing judgment. If the vet hadn't been confident in what he did know, he could have given me a stack of computer print-outs showing my cat's age, heart rate, reflexes, and so on. If he had really wanted to snow me, I guess he'd have shown me how the length of my cat's tail compared with those of other felines around the country. And I might have been so impressed by all those numbers that I'd have forgotten that the cat was still not using the litterbox.

Americans love information, but it's one thing to play silly games in your own living room and quite another to allow children's academic lives to be taken over by the national mania for trivial and tedious factification. In resigning ourselves to keeping track of each child's so-called skills pretty much the way handicappers figure the horses, we must be wary that we don't lose faith in our own observations, our own intuition. We must ask ourselves just what we know when we know a student tests out as a 3.2, and if we know something different when that number is 2.8 or 3.6. We must remind ourselves that as teachers we come to know quite a lot about the students in our charge--long before we look at the test results.

If knowledge is to develop into understanding, it will be not as a result of standardized-test scores, but as a result of teacher observations, our ability to sort information, our sensitivity, tenacity, and plain old savvy. Most important of all is the teacher's ability to wait, to stand back and watch children--nudging and prodding, yes, but mostly giving them the time and space to grow, and having the faith they will.

But these days teachers are being pushed for judgments, instant assessments, precise placements. No longer can we admit that "Johnny's failure to complete assigned tasks could mean he's immature, or it could mean he's lazy, or it could mean he's thinking about more important things." No, that kind of waffling must go. It bespeaks an indecisiveness and even an ignorance that is positively, absolutely unprofessional. These days teachers are running scared; we feel compelled to pretend that what we do is more science than art and intuition. When asked about the children in our charge, we feel compelled to offer numbers, not opinions or anecdotes.

Joseph Featherstone, an astute observer of schools, once wrote: "Our schools assume the worst of teachers as well as children." This is probably why school districts give an average of seven standardized tests a year. The financial burden for all this testing is $100 million; nobody has tried to measure the psychic burden.

Our politicians and education bureaucrats are working hard to eliminate the vagaries of teacher judgment by making standardized testing and accountability and excellence synonymous. They refuse to recognize that much of the important matter in schoolrooms can't be ticked off in a, b, c, d choices. A former head of the Educational Testing Service once listed the virtues of standardized tests: accuracy, objectivity, comparability. Standardized tests, he said, measure "sheer accomplishment." That ponderous term has a decisive ring. We can only wish we knew what it meant.

One of my students did not score at grade level on the standardized test at the end of the year. Does this mean that in terms of "sheer accomplishment" she and I failed the year? It was Leslie's first time in public school, and I would rate her accomplishment as nothing short of miraculous. Severely hearing-impaired, she had been educated in a very restrictive environment before she entered my 3rd-grade class. The adjustment was very difficult--for Leslie, for her parents, and for her teachers. I've lost track of the number of hysterical scenes I took part in, both in the classroom and in the faculty room.

But Leslie learned to work and play (and fight) with other children; she learned to conform to school rules, to adapt to varying demands from varying adults; she made notable progress in that crucial area nobody can measure quantitative-ly: learning how to learn. She learned not to be scared of new things, to jump right in and give it a try. One of the high points of the year came when, after many attempts and many failures, Leslie read a knock-knock joke to the class--with the emphasis in the right place. Anybody who thinks this was a small achievement should have seen the tears of joy streaming down her face (and mine) as she exclaimed, "I get it! I really get it! Let me read another one!" Doubting quantifiers should have heard her classmates cheering.

Such triumphs, alas, are not objective or comparable or provable. They won't appear on anybody's standardized norms or be presented to the board of education in neat little graphs to attest to the fact that I did a good job that year. What does appear on the computer print-outs and the graphs is the bare, cold fact that Leslie scored six months below the magic grade-level number. Never mind that I trained her to stick with a book, to read silently for an hour each morning. Forget that this deaf child memorized poems and recited them for the principal, that she took the leading role in a play performed in front of her 75 3rd-grade peers, that she learned the value of sending people personal notes, sharing in their pain and their joy. The only thing entered on Leslie's permanent-record card is her standardized-test score.

Value, for a McDonald's customer, is a predictable, standardized product. We in education had better stop trying to pretend that we, too, can deliver a streamlined product, one that is capable of being mass-produced and mass-judged. Ours is not a neat and tidy calling. The schoolroom is full of smeary surfaces and dark, hidden depths. We can't reduce what we do to multiple-choice answers, and we shouldn't let other people try. We need to remind the politicians and the professors and the test makers that the important things we do with children are not instantly available in some sort of automatic, pop-up, pull-out, stick-on score. Bureaucrats don't like ambiguity, and so they go for the quantitative knockout punch. No anecdotes, please. Just the facts, ma'am. But as teachers, all we have are our anecdotes.

David Hawkins, philosopher as well as practitioner of education, reminds us that the teacher who is skillful at observation can tell you a great deal that's quite important about a child; she can show you how children really are.

Bureaucrats demur: "Well, we'd like to try some sort of anecdotal system of evaluation, but it just isn't practical." Hawkins answers: "Nonsense! In thinking, the important question is whether it's true or not, not whether it's practical." That is ever the question we must ask of all manner of testing. Don't tell us whether it's practical or efficient; tell us instead whether it's true.

And my cat? I fed him pills and I tickled him under the chin and pleaded with him to mend his wicked ways. Finally, I got him a new litterbox, brown instead of blue. And the cat started using it. So the vet was right: It was either behavioral or medical. Mostly, it was a mystery.

Vol. 05, Issue 13, Page 24

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