I asked my English Comp class this question today in the context of our reading Tracy Kidder’s book, Among Schoolchildren, that chronicles his year observing a fifth grade class in Holyoke, Massachusetts in the mid 1980’s. I was stunned at the lack of response. The class sat there in silence until I began to prod gently. One young man ventured that we could ask students to write about what they knew, to do some self-reflection on what they thought they had learned. “But,” I countered, “what about a child for whom writing is difficult?” Again, my students were silent.
All of the students in my class have had at least 12 years of public school education. They have, for the most part, been subjected to standardized tests for most of those years, but I suspect that they have never stopped to think about what the purpose of those tests was, or whether they were effective for actually assessing knowledge. The fifth grade teacher in Kidder’s book considers one of her student’s work on the California Achievement Test she administered in the fall. The child didn’t bother to read the questions, but randomly filled in bubbles. Kidder writes, “ In Robert’s case, a standardized test merely measured the child’s willingness to take a standardized test”(207). I would suggest that Robert isn’t alone, having done informal surveys among college students. The number of students who confess to simply making patterns in the bubbles is astounding. I remember asking a class how many had done this when a Sheridan College colleague was visiting my class. When half the class raised their hands, she looked at me in disbelief. “Believe it,” I told her.
Clearly, if half of our students are just randomly filling in bubbles, we can safely assume that standardized test are not measuring what we think they are measuring, but are really measuring the student’s willingness to take a standardized test.
This brings me back to the original question: Are there other ways to assess learning besides standardized test?” The answer is “of course there are.” However, they all involve time and money. Children (and adults) are constantly learning things outside of school that are valuable, useful and constructive. How many five-olds do you know who have extensive knowledge of dinosaurs? How do they learn it, and do we need to assess that knowledge or can we tell by having a conversation with that five-year-old what he knows about dinosaurs? Last time I checked there were no standardized tests testing “dino knowledge” for five-year-olds. Almost all kids learn to ride bikes. We do not need a “standardized biking test” to know whether they are proficient riders.
What would happen if, instead of standardized, fill in the bubble tests, we required that all fifth graders to create a multi-facetted project on something that interested them. The project could include some research, some writing, some “construction” (build a dino diorama, for example), some mathematical component and some art component? Would we not be “testing” the child’s reading, researching, writing, and math skills but we would also be seeing some of the less “academic” but equally important skills in art, construction, and problem solving. (Of course there are significant drawbacks to such an approach, among them time and money.)
Although I could rail against standardized testing here, that’s not what concerns me most. What concerns me is that a group of 18 and 19 year-olds could not think of other ways of evaluating learning. Has their education for the last twelve years dulled them so much that they are unable to evaluate the testing process? They have all learned many things in their lives, and many of those things were not academic, yet in the context of a classroom discussion of learning and evaluating, they could not come up with other kinds of assessments.
I wish that education were the process of opening minds, but today, in my English Comp class, I can only see that twelve years of education has done quite the opposite.