What We Can Fix about Testing

It wasn’t always so.

There was a time, not so long ago, when students in public K-12’s in the United States didn’t take annual tests in English and math. Ask teachers, administrators, and even a lot of parents what one thing they would get rid of first from schools, and you’ll hear that word a lot. Testing. It’s too high-stakes. It’s too prone to inaccuracies. It takes up too much valuable time. But it’s a fact of life in education – we can’t do anything about it.

Or can we?

A test provides, at best, a single point-in-time snapshot of what an individual is able to do. Honestly, that’s what tests are supposed to do. To that extent, they can be a useful instructional tool. But when an array of such scores begins to be used to draw conclusions about educator efficacy, district efficacy, and acceptable subgroup progress, we have injected them with far more weight than they deserve.

If test scores get too much attention at the state board of education, that’s their shame. If test scores get too much attention in the superintendent’s office, that’s a travesty. But, if test scores are the only thing that we talk about in the classroom when “testing season” comes, we have completely let go of the steering wheel.

Garry Marshall has directed a long list of popular TV sit-coms: “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” he even directed 6 episodes of “The Odd Couple.” But he struck gold the day he decided to cast Robin Williams’ guest shot as an alien visitor on “Happy Days” into a new series, “Mork & Mindy”. The show was a vehicle for Mr. Williams to do his thing, wild improv comedy.

In those days, TV shows were shot in front of a live studio audience, with three cameras fixed on the key points of action. Robin Williams, who honed his skills playing in every direction to street corner crowds, would dart about the set, doubling the crews over with laughter and blinding them with their own hysterical tears.

When he was finally able to draw a breath, Marshall would ask the cameraman, “Did you get that?”

“Get what?” came the stoic reply of the camerman.

“THAT!” Marshall would respond, gesturing emphatically at Williams. “That was genius!”

“If he’s such a genius,” replied the expert cameraman, never looking up from his viewfinder, “tell him to hit his mark.”

Garry Marshall could have tried to retrain the octogenarian camera operators to follow Williams’ madcap hijinx (bad idea). He could have reined Williams in and got him to work solely from his X taped on the stage (worse idea). Instead, he came up with an innovation that changed studio-audience recording – the fourth camera. Marshall left the three existing cameras where they were, but brought in a fourth, freely-roaming, camera. And that camera operator’s instructions were simple – “Record everything Robin does.”

Nationally-normed standardized tests are a stationary camera. They record what they’re intended to see, and nothing more. And the camera operator never-mind’s everything else.

If we want students to believe that tests aren’t necessarily an indicator of their hard work – and not at all a measure of their worth as a person – we had better show them. That initiative will not come from the top, outside of the local district. This one is totally under our control. And we don’t do it by continuing to harp about the tests, even when we’re parroting that they’re not that important. (When your kid mentions the newest video game console ten times a day and keeps telling you it isn’t important, what message do you get?)

Every student in your class/grade/school/district can deliver a genius performance at something. If you don’t know what it is for one of your students, find out. Ask their previous teachers, their siblings, their guardians. If they don’t have any of those, just getting to school is a stroke of genius. Our job is to make sure there is a “fourth camera” there to catch those genius performances, for everyone.

Be that kid’s fourth camera.

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