Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hollow promises

Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high- stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity.
- Sen. Paul Wellstone (1944-2002)

Could you imagine Joel Klein, George Bush, Barrack Obama, Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee saying anything like this?

In Alberta, Canada, we have a very strong understanding for how foolish the American Education System's obsession with standardized test scores truly is; and yet we still have a very strong test score focus.

Mission statements are cute, but if school districts want to strive for excellence by inspiring learning and nurturing hope in every student, they have to do more than just say it - and they can't simply resign themselves to the way they've always done things.

School districts need to rethink how they define and measure success. In Alberta, we still place far too much emphasis on narrow minded, paper and pencil, multiple choice exams. If we really care about excellence for all - inspiring learning in all - nurturing hope in all - then we need to define and measure success in a less standardized manner. But then that means we need to drop or obsessive need to measure our success in a way that compares one kid or one school to other kids and other schools. If we no longer feel the need to compare then we no longer feel the need to standardize.

If we no longer need to standardize for the purpose of data collections, then we can properly personalize learning in a way that is inspiring and nurturing for all.


  1. Yes. It's interesting that Finland gives a lot of leeway to its teachers to innovate according to the needs of their particular classrooms. And their students' international test scores are very high. (I just posted a piece about the alternative Finnish definition of "reform" on my blog: http://www.northtomom.blogspot.com/ )

  2. I have read very thoroughly thought-out words by Alfie Kohn on this matter, but neither he nor you seem to fully address the difficult question - what is the best way to assess a student's status without testing, especially for suitability to proceed to further education? The Finns avoid testing for the most part with teacher led assessments, sometimes with externally recruited help, but they too rely on high stakes matriculation for college entry.

    The Finns are a very socially integrated people who value honesty, so trust enables teachers to assess with minimal fear of corruption. Would a school in the Bronx be able to trust teachers and pupils in quite the same way?


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