Curriculum Opinion

Road testing for schools

By Deborah Meier — May 16, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Diane,

Here’s my bottom line re testing: Wherever possible, we should be relying on direct evidence of the domain we’re investigating. And the final judges should be close to the action being judged. If they need or value information from standardized tests, they should be free to do so. (Otherwise large-scale standardized testing should be sample-based for the purpose of gaining information on trends, regions, subjects, etc—not on individual students or schools)

We’re always in the end resting our case on fallible judgment. Until and unless we turn ourselves into robots. The further my evidence is from the object of judgment, the less reliable. Interesting, yes, but. If we reduce state/national testing to sample-size we might also be able to increase its depth and value for research and policy.

If I want to know if I should trust Sam to drive a car on his own, the best source for deciding this is to ask someone who has driven with him. I could design a more efficient method—a test that “correlates” with some other criteria for measuring good driving (number of accidents?). But even so, once the word was “out”, the correlation would disappear. Even on a driving road test, if I know exactly what they are going to ask me to do (and where), I may narrow my practice down to those particulars. On manual cars, stopping and starting on a hill was the supreme test. “Lucky” were those whose test route didn’t include a hill, “phew”. No more hours and hours of practicing for that skill. If I want information on the status of U.S. drivers, not just Sam, I’d sample the population with a good road test.

For all its faults, compared with the written test, the road test still is the real thing. The hardest bubble-in or “constructed text” paper-and pencil test on driving won’t be of any use to me at all in deciding whether to hand my car over to Sam. Yet what we have done in schooling is try to make the paper-and-pencil driver’s test harder, and give it more often, and eliminate the performance test entirely. (Do we agree so far?)

Some 20 years ago Ted Sizer wrote a book called “Horace’s Compromise” based upon the idea of starting off by asking what the “road test” is for K-12 schooling—and then planning backward. Of course, the backward plan depends on how rich and deep and robust our goals are—the road test. Instead the nation has embarked on the “planning backward” part of his idea, but scrapped the road test and replaced it with simply more and more paper-and-pencil tests.

When Sizer put forth his idea he was called a utopian. Schools like mine in East Harlem (CPESS) were started simply to prove he was not a utopian. And we did. But it can’t be replicated by mandate. Short cuts galore have been tried—but they lead to a different end.

The task has to start with asking what do we want those kids to show they can do before we hand over that diploma. Sizer-style schools still exist—and in the month of May the Coalition of Essential Schools hosts a nationwide display of their “exhibitions"—their road tests. Check out CES for the one nearest you. (There are several in NYC.)

But, here’s the rub, Diane. They didn’t all answer that question (what do you want “all kids” to show they can do?) the same way. Just as most private schools differ, so do they. Thus they too don’t all have the same curriculum. I think that augurs well for the future of America and the world; some people think it augurs poorly. This is worth arguing about.


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