Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reporting Real Learning

If 70% of tax payers in Alberta do not have children in school, will they take the time to look beyond the limited and superficial information that a standardized test score can provide?

Likely not.

I don't really blame them for this; after all, we all have only so much time and effort to expend, and if a tax payer doesn't even have a child in school, they've got better things to do than study the quality of their neighbourhood school.

Be assured this is less of an indictment of the public and more of a wake up call for educators, school boards and governments to do a better job of exhibiting and sharing real student learning.

In Alberta, the Alberta Teachers' Association, Alberta School Boards' Association and Alberta Education need to collaborate in a far more effective and efficient way to replace standardized testing with something far more authentic.

Ultimately, real accountability really means that the public can access the information they need to know about their schools. In other words, accountability is really about transparency; and yet accountability begins and ends with standardized test scores which are anything but transparent.

This is true for a variety of interesting reasons. One example I often use is that if you want to know if a child can throw a ball, you don't give them a multiple choice test, you watch them throw a ball. And yet this is precisely the mistake we make with standardized testing.

We say we want kids to be happy, creative, responsible, ethical, honest, respectful, autonomous, and resilient, but then we give them standardized tests that are incapable of assessing any of these things. And yet how many people see standardized test scores as prima facie evidence that our schools are good or bad?

The best feedback parents can receive about their child's learning is for them to see their child's learning.

Back in the old days, show-and-tell, science fairs and barn dances were exhibitions of learning. Communities came together to observe and listen to students while they performed their learning - and if things went really well, parents and community members might have actually interacted with the students.

No one needed to translate the results - everyone could see with their own eyes that learning was or was not taking place. However, when we use something as artificially simple as testsandgrades to report something as complex as student learning, is there any surprise that many of us mistake testsandgrades and real learning as the same thing?

When we are offered the choice between the inconvenience of spending the time and effort required for observing the messiness of real learning with the arbitrarily convenient tidy testsandgrades, I fear we will be seduced by the spurious precision of the numbers.

This is precisely why educators have a professional obligation not to provide the public with such reductionist data.Truly no good can come from it.


  1. I've been thinking a lot of late about the World Health Organization. They use data to make decisions about life and death issues, and that's not hyperbole. Seemingly superficial and reductionist data are used to make decisions about funding and distribution of resources. Yet, we understand that reporting TB rates among children says little or nothing about a country's quality of life, yet that data point allows that country and the WHO to identify an entry point for addressing the health of the country's citizens.

    I think there are two issues here that, while related, are not the same. First, standardized test designers have never, will never, claim to asses a child's creativity, love of learning, responsibility, or autonomy. If they do, they've violated their profession's ethical standards. Most states (and provinces) provide a technical document or blueprint that spells out, in mind numbing detail, exactly what the test is assessing. A standardized reading test doesn't claim to assess a child's love of the written the word - it assess her ability to read. Full stop. Is that all reading is? Is that all we want children to get out of schools? Of course not. No more than infant mortality speaks to a community's quality of life. Second, is the perpetual tension of being a publicly-funded profession. Many of the issues around the misuse of standardized testing data aren't coming from educators, rather from politicians who think because they went to school, and now have children, understand our profession. Claiming that teachers shouldn't provide the data is misleading as in most cases, it's federal or state policy that have led to the testing situation we're in. Failure to comply with those policies results in a lost of funding, which will have a direct impact on students.

    I don't have children and a niece who lives in another county. I will gladly and willingly pay my local school taxes because I believe in public education. I believe that society has an obligation to provide every child with the opportunity to achieve whatever vision they and their family have as their measure of success. The senior citizens I know in my community aren't begrudging school taxes, even though their children are out of school, as in the words of one of my neighbors, public education is the ultimate in "paying it forward". Knowing if my local school is teaching students to read is the barest, most basic, most raw contribution of public education. I, as a tax payer, should be able to ascertain if my local school system is providing that service. I've never been a victim of a crime (knock on wood). Should information about public safety be off limits to me until I am one?

    I do not think test scores should printed in local papers and schools ranked and sorted. I get an ulcer the day a local magazine releases its lists of "best schools". I think evidence of teaching and learning that support a child, her parents, and her teacher are different than data related to the education system. I do think "reductionist" data can provide a measure, a glimpse, a small iota of information about what happens within a school.

    I'm intrigued by this concept of "reporting real learning". In order for something to be reported, it has be translated into a symbol or image that can be disseminated. Who decides what constitutes "real" learning? Does that mean that a child's ability to read is "fake" learning?

    As always, I look forward to the conversation.

  2. I am in such agreement with you, but am finding that many parents are not in agreement and do not want to wait for these celebrations of learning. Many are demanding worksheets & pencil/paper tasks along with #testsandgrades.

    And while I may not agree with these types of requests, I understand their reasoning for the request. They want to see what their child is doing right now and how they are doing. There must be some happy medium between the two?

  3. Children do not come to school to learn. They come to school to be. They grow as a person and their time in school is a special place and time in their lives, set in many other places, times and relationships. Our job as educators is a special one to assist and nurture their growing. The development of their capabilities includes many that are conventionally thought of as learning, and some are frequently tested (badly) in many schools. But if we move beyond those then we need to focus on a child’s needs in their development. To do that we have to enter in to their living, their lived experiences, and that means forming part of their world and their relationships. Conventional testing vanishes, but not involvement in learning, or rather the wider development of being. Seen this way the reporting question starts to answer itself, for it is the answer to questions about the development of the child, and we as educators need to develop relationships with the child, their family and their wider community. Linking our means to assist the developing child and finding means to report on their development then become integrally connected, for it is a process of forming personal growth, essentially from within not imposed from outside. True formative assessment thus comprises reporting – to the developing child and the network of those assisting them. In so doing we also develop our being too. Profiles and formats are then secretarial, devised reciprocally to assist the purposes of learning and development under way. Not an easy answer. But it is not about answers. It is about forming good questions to best aid the development of each and every child, and how we report on that is essentially a part of forming the purposes and questions which are an integral part of the process. A world away from standardized testing. In fact an alien planet.


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