2001-01-13 / Columnists

School Scope

School Scope

Every so often an article pops up on the education radar screen that is so important that it needs to be given the widest possible exposure.

What follows is one of those articles. Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard School of Education, wrote it and it bears reading by all who are interested in education in this city.

Gardner’s contention is that, in the quest to improve public schools, we’ve made test performance more important than education. There are many locally (including myself) who heartedly agree.

What follows are excerpts from an article that first appeared in the Los Angeles Times of December 31. It came to me as an attachment to e-mail from Norman Scott.

Gardner writes:

"With California leading the way, the nation is going through a frenzy of testing its public school students. Never before have so many students been given so many formal standardized tests.

"The stakes for students, faculty, administrators and even politicians have never been higher. Admission to college, cost of student housing, jobs and promotions for those in the teaching profession and election to office – all hinge on whether the all-important scores have gone up, or up enough. But few have even posed the central question: What is the relation between test scores and quality education?

"The testing frenzy is in response to a perceived problem. Over the last 20 years, Americans have become convinced that U.S. public schools are not doing a good enough job and, in particular, are failing their most disadvantaged students. Whether schools are absolutely worse off than in 1950 is not the issue; nor is there evidence that disadvantaged students were ever well-served. Yet, most observers would agree that today’s schools do not adequately prepare students for the knowledge economy that all developed nations compete in. So a predictable sequence has unfolded: 1) Create or resurrect instruments by which student performance can be assessed. 2) Attach high stakes to these performances. 3) Reward high test scores and punish those deemed responsible for their absence.

"It has been quipped that the best solution for indifferent test scores is to test even more, as if taking the temperature of a sick person repeatedly will in itself improve their health. A testing frenzy feeds on itself. But test scores in themselves should not be the goal of schooling; nor should practicing for the test be a primary activity for students. Rather, improved test scores should be an index of good education. If an effective education is taking place, then one should be able to administer a wide variety of tests from one year to the next and encounter consistently good performance. But no jurisdiction would dare to carry out such an experiment, because, deep down, policymakers know that higher scores are more likely to be the result of ‘teaching to version x of test y’ than the dividend of generally strong preparation.

"But, a randomly chosen politician might respond, ‘we spend huge amounts of federal, state and local tax dollars on public education and that amount has increased in recent years. Unless we don’t care whether or not that money is wasted, it is essential that we hold schools – teachers, students and perhaps parents – accountable for student learning.’

"There is nothing wrong with calling for accountability. The crucial question concerns its manner. In this country, we have made the mistake of equating academic accountability with testing -- typically, the short-answer, machine-scored test. But many other forms of accountability exist.

"The goal of quality education requires an entirely different approach. We must begin with a vision of what it means to be an educated person; the means of assessment should follow from, rather than dictate, the ways in which we educate students. The educated person is one who can think well in terms of major disciplines, in particular, who displays historical, scientific, mathematical and artistic understanding. Understanding is not the same as knowing lots of facts and figures. Rather, understanding is a discipline that entails knowing how to make sense of phenomenon that is unfamiliar but that can nonetheless be illuminated if one know how to make sense of documents (history), conduct a controlled experiment (science), analyze a situation quantitatively (mathematics) or qualitatively (literature and the arts).

"Should one adopt such a vision, the means of assessment should be performance-based. That is, students are given an unfamiliar example (an item from today’s news, data from a new experiment, a recently created work of art) and are then required to make sense of it. Their score might be determined in part by their ability to indicate the steps that they would take, where they initially stymied. As Socrates taught us thousands of years ago, part of being educated is knowing what you don’t know and how to bootstrap yourself to understanding.

"The United States is too vast to be satisfied with a single education vision. We could never come up with a collective education vision that would satisfy Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson and Jesse Ventura. Our test-crazed society attempts to deal with this problem by ducking altogether the question of vision. This is a mistake.

"We should develop perhaps a half-dozen educational pathways, each aligned to a particular vision of the educated human being. The pathway of ‘disciplinary understanding’ described above would be one. As with current standardized tests, the results of assessments would be made public. But instead of the focus falling on numbers, whose meanings are obscure even to psychometricians, the focus would fall on actual knowledge that is cherished and the ways that knowledge has been exhibited by flesh and blood students…This represents a more sensible state of affairs than the current numbing tables of numbers in our newspapers.

"The limits of the current testing frenzy should sooner or later become clear, and the focus will eventually shift to the kinds of minds that we value and the best ways to fashion them. There will certainly be a place for testing – or, better, assessment…The idea of a handful of pathways represents a meaningful midpoint between a single system, which involves too many compromises and a plethora of charter or voucher choices that would be impossible to sustain or monitor.

"The biggest cost of a system geared single-mindedly to test scores is that we virtually never hear any public discussion of what it means to use your mind well, to understand, to appreciate, to create knowledge, to be an educated human being. And so students can properly draw the conclusion that we do not care about these values.

"Winston Churchill once remarked that the American people can always be counted on to do the right thing – after they have exhausted every other alternative. It is time for those who do care to make known their concerns and visions – a perhaps meet the challenge set by Churchill."


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