When I was a kid I loved standardized tests. It was like a day off from school. We took a test, and had recess. We took another test and had another recess. If we were done early we read a book or looked out the window without getting yelled at. There was no homework the night before and the teacher told us not to worry about it. “Get a good night’s sleep and bring a No. 2 pencil.”
One year I made patterns on the score sheet instead of reading and answering the questions. The teacher gave me an odd look when I finished, but said nothing. Years later a high school counselor asked about the year my scores plummeted and laughed at my explanation. If kids did that now, they might be arrested.
Since “No Child Left Behind Act” was enacted, the driving force in schools is about increasing test scores. Many schools will not let kids participate in “fun” activities until after the March ISAT (Illinois State Achievement Test). I visited one school that had vocabulary lessons in the bathroom stalls. Another one had a pre-test pep assembly to encourage the students to achieve their goal of 85% at or above grade level. Did the 15% not expected to succeed still cheer?
I’m not against testing. Teachers need to know what the students don’t understand so you can find another way to reach them. Standardized tests don’t do that very well. You wait for months to learn the results. They tell the score but not how or why the student came up with the answer on that particular day.
Years ago I attended a lecture by Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor from Harvard. He presented his theory of multiple intelligence derived from an extensive research project to define intelligence and learn how humans learned. What he said excited, thrilled and saddened me.
Gardner defined intelligence as the ability to survive and thrive in your environment. He cited examples from his field work. He once visited a Pacific Island where fishing was the basis of their economy. He went out for a day with fishermen. They used dug-out canoes and traveled for hours far from the island and any landmarks. They found schools of fish, captured what was needed, returned pregnant females and young males, then made their way back in the dark by detecting ocean currents through their feet. In this society Dr. Gardner was a total idiot.
Dr. Gardner shared the dirty secret about standardized tests and IQ scores. They test the lowest and most insignificant portion of our intelligence. To make the scoring manageable there are right and wrong answers. They cannot take into account the student’s life experience and reasoning ability or to test for the most sophisticated and vital part of intelligence: how to take divergent ideas and create something new. It is humanity’s ability to create and adapt that has allowed us to survive so far.
I once administered assessment tests based on Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory that there are four essential stages of human brain development. I sat with one child at a time to ask the questions and how they came up with the answer. They might give a good answer but have faulty reasoning. Or the opposite.
For one test I had a ball of clay. I showed the ball and then flattened it with my hand. The question was: Was there more clay when it was in the shape of a ball, or when it was flat, or is the amount of clay the same? At one stage of development the child is likely to say one of the shapes has more clay. At a more sophisticated stage they understand mass remains the same regardless of shape. I asked a boy the question and his answer was the ball had more. I asked to explain and he said there were molecules we couldn’t see that stuck to my hand when I flattened it.
A Headstart teacher gave another example. A pre-school test showed a picture of a toothbrush. The child was to draw a line to where the toothbrush belonged. There were pictures of a bathroom sink, a bed, a toy box and a refrigerator. A little girl drew a line to the refrigerator. The teacher asked the child why she made that choice. “Mama keeps them in there so the cockroaches don’t get them.”
Working now as an arts education advocate, I am aware of the pressures teachers and principals face in raising test scores to prove they are worthy of their jobs and salaries. When speaking candidly, they know the standardized test scores are not the most important aspect of what they teach, but when you are judged on their results it forces you to make it the priority.
The issue isn’t whether to test or not test. It’s how to test, and what to assess to improve the teaching and help the child develop to her or his best self.
The arts provide examples for this.
Artists do assessments naturally as a part of the work. The more serious the art the deeper the assessment, or maybe it’s the other way around…the more in depth the assessment, the more serious and good the art becomes. The artist may not think of it as a test because it is such an integral part of the process. They might say they are working and reworking the piece until it is right.
This struck me after tagging along with Arnold Aprill, of CAPE (Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education). Arnold is an International Fulbright Scholar and travels around the world consulting with communities on arts education and cultural arts policy. The Rockford Area Arts Council received a special grant to bring him to Rockford to consult with arts organizations on creating arts assessments for their education programs. Arnold asked questions that made them think. He asked what they were curious about and what they wondered about their students’ learning. As people talked and reflected they became excited. It sparked interesting ideas and possibilities for new programs, and revamping current ones. And their thoughts and concerns went beyond art skills. They want to help these young people be prepared to live in the world and offer their unique contributions.
These conversations were generated and energized by the task of developing authentic arts assessment tools. Tests don’t have to be evil; we can use them as a force for good.
If we are serious about improving our schools, we need to thoughtfully consider what our children need to survive and thrive in the world. That would be something worth testing.
NOTE: The Arts Assessment project was sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council.
CAPE Arts Assessment Toolbox
Piaget Stages of Development