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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Measuring Beautiful Minds: Moving Away from the Test Take Over



Rendering of human brain.Image via Wikipedia
Spring in the US is such a busy time with "spring sports" and so many things going on including the end of the school year.  I'm trying to get my feet under me after a spate of trips (including the one to India.)  So, since I'll be grading until 2 am, I just thought to share a little bit with you about some of the ponderings running around in my head.

No Child Left Behind is Long Overdue
I've been thinking about the plan to introduce legislation here for the long-overdue revision of No Child Left Behind and was struck with an analogy (perhaps not a perfect one) with what is going on in education. Tests can only tell you so much.

What I saw in my  minds eye is an old cartoon from the 70's where the hood of a car is up with the proverbial lady looking at the engine with the lovely figure -- the cartoon character whistles and then the lady with her head in the engine looks up and is the face of a cow with the cartoon character's jaw dropping down to the floor.

Beware judging beauty by measurements.  Measurements are certainly part of the equation and certainly there is more to beauty (and learning) that some discrete dimensions.  And that is the point.

Test scores are PART of the equation, but right now, we're focusing on getting just good test scores.  Good test scores just don't measure a good education: there is so much more.  In order to make things scalable, we are tempted to make things discrete and mass-measurable.  Certainly, this is understandable.  However, there must be more to education.

The limitations of a test-only education system have been debated and discussed ad nauseum and I'm not planning on adding to that.  I will tell you, however, that seeing students who can speak well in front of an audience, who can write a blog post well, upload photographs and produce video as easily as producing an essay are part of my definition of well-educated.  Someone who can debate and think and figure things out as well as study for and do well on a test.  Being able to do the measurable AND the more generalized bigger picture sorts of things are BOTH part of being educated.  But, how do you make that scalable?

Sometimes I think those arguing against learning styles, customization, and differentiation are those who do not see room for such things in a scalable environment. What about both? Once I had a younger relative who was bemoaning a certain teacher who only lectured and gave them tests all the time, I'll tell them,

"you know what - if you had only amazing teachers in every subject and every topic was interesting and they were so good you never had to study, then you wouldn't be ready for real life!  Real life is mundane and exciting!  Boring and Interesting!  Tedious and Unique! Get over it!"

ONLY A REASON
This is part of what life and education is. I think, however, when school becomes ONLY tedium and ONLY memorization and ONLY routine and ONLY lecture that we start seeing the huge drop out rates. Every student needs a REASON to want to come to school - they may find it in sports or an activity and truthfully, this is why I think the East Program in Arkansas has had such a resounding and measurable improvement on math and science scores! Here you have a program (in EAST) that is NOT teaching math and science but because the students are becoming engrossed in a project to improve something using technology - the kids want to come to school. They want to come to school and want to succeed and it spills over into everything else!

EAST is Eden?

Look at these projects they are doing in EAST! (Fighting underage drinking, planting trees, fighting childhood cancer, and supporting animal shelters just to name a few.)

We have their bodies in school but we do not have their minds.  We have their hands but their souls are outside running through sprinklers (to quote one of my favorite cartoons.)

Completely Educated
So, I'm saying this to point something out -- that we need to look at a complete education.  A WHOLE education.  Producing students that have the facts and information that they need to succeed along with the poise, confidence, technology skills, and cultural/ global savvy to thrive and compete in this complex world.  And that, we're not going to get with a test.

When I presented in Arkansas, I made the comment that having great test scores and saying you have a great education is like saying that my husband comes home every night and saying that statistic means I have a good marriage.  It is much more complex than that!

Taking Tests without Tests Taking Over
Now, all of this comes from me just prepping my ninth and tenth graders for the SAT.  My own children started taking the SAT in 7th grade and take it once a year each year.  It is a certain type of test that they have to learn to take so they can be ready for it - it is important for their future.  However, I wouldn't DREAM of having a semester long SAT prep course - there are more efficient meaningful ways to prep for that test that don't require such a time commitment!  However, to ignore the test is fatal if my son wants to go to Georgia Tech like Mom and Dad!  And yet, to ignore GPA and clubs and literary and sports is also harmful as he won't be well rounded.

AND
I just don't think this is an OR decision. We're not choosing Test OR something else to measure education - we're saying Test AND other measures.  Otherwise, give me the perfect measurements for your perfect beauty and then don't care what his/her face looks like and also ignore the fact whether they have a screechy voice or are such an annoyance that they make your life miserable! 

Measurements CANNOT define beauty and more than they can singly define education. How do you measure a beautiful mind?

As we discuss and push ahead we must realize that answers lie in the qualitative AND quantitative measures.  And we must grapple with the issues and struggles that come with keeping qualitative fair and at a high standard of excellence.
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