It sounds like a simple question: How do we know what schoolchildren know? The answer seems just as simple: Give them a test! As is often the case, however, things get complicated once we look below the surface. I discovered just how complicated when I talked with elementary school students about Christopher Columbus.
The Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to take the complexity and uncertainty out of school results. An aggressive system of standardized testing was sold as a way to ratchet up teacher and student accountability and to facilitate the clear-eyed rating of schools. These and other assumptions are proving problematic, but the heart of the problem may be our collective unwillingness to address the question of how we accurately and confidently assess children’s knowledge.
My interest in this question surfaced as I interviewed Bill, an urban, African-American 3rd grader. Bill and his peers were part of a larger study that explored questions about how students make sense of complex human behavior. To ground the study, I decided to focus on the relationships between Christopher Columbus and the Native groups he met in the New World.
Bill offered a weak set of facts in response to my initial questions about how Columbus and the Natives got along. Columbus “bumped into North America and then he thought he, he went to um, India, so he called the Iroquoians the Indians.” He did all this while creating “friendly” relations with the Natives and proving that the earth is not “flat.” Bill’s narrative, while entertaining, seemed something of a factual crazy quilt.
To probe Bill’s understandings, I then read two short accounts of Columbus’ return trip to Spain from children’s books. David Adler writes in A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus, “In March 1493, Christopher Columbus sailed back to Spain with gold trinkets, parrots, and a few Indians.” In Christopher Columbus, Stephen Krensky offers: “Soon the Niña and the Pinta are ready to sail back to Spain. The ships are already loaded with many new kinds of food. … Columbus has also forced six Indians to come with him.” To our adult ears, these passages seem quite different. I was curious to see how Bill would interpret them.
After reading the accounts, Bill maintained his “friendly Columbus” image. Asked if Columbus is a hero, Bill explained, “He is a hero, because he found new land and ways they could get food.” Had I stopped the interview here, I might have concluded that the texts had not helped Bill very much. He recalled no new details other than to assume that Europeans were starving until Columbus returned with boxes of fruit.
Things took a dramatic turn, however, when I asked about Columbus forcing Natives on to his ships:
“I was thinking about the piece I read that said that Columbus forced six Indians to come with him. What do you think about that?” “That he was real mean to them because they might not have wanted to go with him so he had to force out … anger.”
“And what does that make you think?” “That he was a little mean.”
“A little mean? What does that sound like to you?” “Like he’s, um, half good, half bad.”
“Have you ever heard of anybody like that?” “Me!”
“You?” (Nodding) “My brother and sister, everybody I know.”
“How is that so?” “Because sometimes they get mean and sometimes they be good.”
“Can you be a good person and still do some mean things?” “I do some good things, but mostly all bad.” (Bill and I laugh.)
I will admit to having been pretty confused at this point. The boy who, minutes earlier, reported a muddle of historical facts now offered a fairly sensitive historical interpretation (Columbus was “half good, half bad”) and a personal connection to the past (“Have you ever heard of anybody like that?” “Me!”).
What stood out to me, however, was Bill’s ability to see Columbus as a fully formed human being. As a historical actor, Columbus is neither unfailing hero nor devil incarnate. (Even Columbus’ most generous biographers acknowledge his role in the Native genocide.) Bill recognized that Columbus both added to and subtracted from the human condition. In doing so, he held history up as a mirror: Columbus is “half good, half bad,” just as he, his siblings, “everybody I know” are.
In these seemingly simple phrases, Bill connected past and present on a human level. He was not judging Columbus by some naive measure of political correctness, nor was he misapplying the standards of the present to the past. Instead, Bill judged some of Columbus’ actions as “a little mean” because he knew some of his own behavior could be judged similarly.
Reading Bill’s words, a teacher might be disappointed in his weak factual knowledge, but heartened by his ability to offer a plausible interpretation of and personal connection to Columbus. By contrast, a researcher might focus on Bill’s prior knowledge, his lived experience, the texts read, and my interview questions, and then conclude that Bill demonstrates a weak ability to reason from evidence. A state policymaker might find the interview transcript interesting, but worry that Bill is not likely to do well on an objective-style assessment. For myself, I realized I had just spent 20 minutes trying to understand this boy’s ideas only to conclude that, as time passed, I was less and less confident that I did.
How would Bill do on a standardized test? More importantly, how confident would we be that the test results accurately told us what Bill knows? These questions, taken together, pose a real dilemma for those interested in ambitious school reform. For if we take seriously the problems evident in a test-based accountability system, then we have to recognize that the results may give us a false read. Test scores may provide an easy accounting system, but one without much in the way of genuine accountability.
We owe Bill and his peers more than that.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as How Do We Know What Kids Know?