Thursday, July 30, 2009

Testing, Testing...

Brother Bear started his 3rd Grade CAT5 test today. The State of Georgia requires all homeschooled children to take a standardized test at the end of the 3rd Grade, and every three years thereafter. We don’t have to send the results to anyone, just give the test and keep the results in our records. Kind of odd to require testing, but have no interest in the results, but whatever.

I’m not a big fan of standardized tests for a couple of reasons, but we “do the test” anyway. The test designers insist that the CAT5 is a way of determining which area a child is doing well in compared to their peers and the “experts” expectations of them, and which areas the child could use more work in. We don’t bother too much with trying to keep the kids “at grade level”; we just let them learn what they’re interested in, when they want to learn it. After all, they’ve got a couple of decades to learn everything they’ll need to know to be functional and successful human beings. So, what’s the rush in the early years? And, the way we do the test here at home, it is a pretty good indication of “where” the child is compared to the expert’s expectations, because we don’t spend weeks frantically “teaching to the test” before test day arrives. The test shows up in the mail, we sit down and do it over a couple of days, and we send it back. A few weeks later, the results arrive in the mail, we look them over (maybe), and file them away. No stress. No “high stakes” testing, because nothing is “at stake”. Brother Bear’s not going to be flunked out of homeschool, or humiliated in front of his brothers or friends because he did not do well. I’m not going to be fired for failure to perform, and our homeschool is not going to have its funding cut because of low test scores. (Oh yeah, we don’t have any funding).

Probably because I happen to be reading John Holt right now, I’m very aware of how much stress is built into these standardized tests, even if they weren’t used in such a high stakes way. I remember as a child taking these much-dreaded tests, even before our teachers and school were subjected to penalties if we, the students, did not perform as required. We were all herded off to “the room” instead of staying in our usual classroom. There were numerous adults we didn’t know walking up and down the perfectly aligned rows of desks to be sure we were doing everything correctly. We were given explicit instructions on exactly how we must use our #2 pencil to fill in the little bubble. Don’t write on the test booklet, fill in the bubble entirely keeping your mark entirely inside the bubble, do not make any marks on the test card other than inside the chosen bubble. And, everything was timed to add more pressure. Everything about the testing environment was foreign and stressful. I distinctly remember being so stressed out about filling in the bubble correctly, I could barely focus on the question itself.

Giving Brother Bear his CAT5 test I realized even the way the test is written, by design and regardless of the testing environment, is stress-inducing. I frankly feel like an illiterate moron reading word-for-word exactly the words I am supposed to say to the student. It is almost as though the test designers are assuming the teachers giving these tests are so stupid they have to be held by the hand every moment, lest they do it wrong and ruin the test results. The students aren’t treated much better, being given overly-explicit directions for the simplest procedures. Most of the instructions are given to the students verbally, apparently because the test designers don’t want to trust the students to read and understand the instructions themselves. I remember the tone and tempo of the strange adults testing us in school, speaking very clearly and slowly to be sure we all understood clearly exactly what was expected of us. It was, and still is, unsettling for children to be spoken to as though they are idiots.

I understand that the testing materials and manner of applying the tests all have to be consistent and are designed to minimize the chance of “cheating” or otherwise squewing the results. The test data must be preserved to be accurate. But, this is not a scientific experiment we’re talking about, here. It’s our kids we’re talking about. And, supposedly, they are not just a bunch of guinea pigs in a nation-wide government experiment. Of course, if you ask John Gatto, they are exactly that; test animals in a giant social experiment. Standardized testing seems to be proof of that.

If you want to know what a child knows, giving them a test is as good a way of doing that as any, I suppose. But, if you really want an accurate reflection of what the child knows, you have to keep the testing environment as “normal” and relaxed as possible, not stick them in a completely foreign and stressful environment. As Holt points out, most people, and kids especially, do not perform well under pressure. As soon as you stick a kid in a high-pressure testing environment, you automatically make him or her less intelligent than they really are. You can’t possibly get an accurate measurement of what the child knows under these circumstances. So, if the true purpose of standardized testing is to determine what our nation’s kids actually know, the experiment is doomed to failure from the start, by its own design. Unfortunately, the failure of the experiment is just one more layer of failure in a doomed system.

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