There are some excellent vistas along my daily commute affording both beautiful sunrise views over a lake and sunset views across horizons of rolling hills. Yesterday I stopped to capture a snapshot of one such sunset. It was too brilliantly beautiful to not stop and try to capture it. Yet the photo resulting from my quick stop on the road does little to no justice to the view my eyes and emotional self was absorbing in that moment.
As I accepted this disappointment and continued driving home, a thought occurred to me: Standardized assessment is a low-quality snapshot.
Standardized assessments happen in a one-shot manner, capturing only a very rough sketch of what learning is from an isolated point of view, and but one moment in time, while its goal is purportedly to capture the essence of all that our educational system amounts to (and if this is not the goal, then why do all stakes in our accountability rely upon this), it falls far short of this end.
The view I saw was mesmerizing, uplifting, and so vibrant in all its colors, vastness, and crisp detail. It moved me emotionally in a manner that photo can never replicate for another. It provided one of those moments of perspective I often gain from immersion in natural landscapes, a perspective that reminds me that while nothing is perfect and we have much work to do in the world to be our best version of humanity, we are progressing, learning, and growing toward that end. While I saw some decay and signs of days past in the late fall forest between me and the horizon, the light shining through gave hope and it was all a sign of the seasonal changes to come. Yet the snapshot of it seems dark, isolated, and with only a rough outline, a mere hint of the beauty my spirit was absorbed in.
Our educational system (thus we as a society, as the two are complexly attached) has far to go to realize the potential of providing every child a learner-centered, democratic, progressive, experiential/inquiry/problem-based learning model of teaching and learning. I recently began to feebly articulate elements of what this might look like. The system as it stands is like the view I saw over the horizon, including signs of decay and seasons past in the shadows of a great light shining through providing not only hope of a tomorrow, but also lighting the beauty that is today, what is all the progress we have made and the many great things we do right now, everyday, for the children in our care.
So why the false narrative of the great failure of the public school experiment? That is a multi-volume series of posts in itself, one others are expressing for more aptly than I am able and which is beyond the scope of this post. (Hint: public education is a huge cash cow, one of the final frontiers of private profiteering, and many financial powers that be benefit greatly from a narrative of public school failure while we all funnel billions of public dollars into privately profiting hands with little regulation and accountability for the benefit to cost ratio, but as I said, it’s beyond the scope of this post.) However, one piece of the false narrative pie is the poisoned, rotten piece of high-stakes standardized assessment.
Like the one-time snapshot of my sunset view and its many limitations to capture and express to others the immensely beautiful view I saw, standardized assessment provides but rough snapshots of a rough outline of the immense beauty and complexity of education, an immensity that encompasses seemingly infinite variables influencing how its impact is deeply felt and experienced by people — students, educators, parents, tax payers, policy makers, etc. These snapshots cannot and will not ever communicate the whole that is far greater than any sum of such isolated parts. And we know this. Our research has shown clearly that standardized assessment can not validly and reliably assess the whole sum value and progress of education.
I could share yesterday’s snapshot with others while trying to express how deeply it affected me, and they will not fully understand. They will see a darker view than the brightness my camera could not capture. They will see some light shining through but overpowered by the dark decay of the spot of forest before me. This dilemma is precisely the one high-stakes testing and its shaping of the public’s narrative of education has created. Rough snapshots of all that a school does defining that school as making progress or not, needing improvement, or failing. (Quick note: We should always be making progress and never settle for adequate.)
Many variables could have shaped my experience of taking that photo. It could have been cloudier, raining, or even still snowing lightly has it had been earlier. I may have been in a different mood or not even caught sight of the beauty beside me. With the one-shot deal of standardized assessment, so many variables come into play as well. I’ve personally experienced and known of schools where one student’s obvious lack of effort made the difference between AYP or not, SINI/DINI or not. When I served on my local school board, one student refused to take the tests. The school was going for two years of AYP to be removed from SINI status. That one student’s refusal impacted the three-year participation equation so that it became the difference in not making AYP. The request to the state for an appeal of this factor was denied.
We have seen in my school the results where one or two students quite obviously just filled in bubbles. Those one or two made the difference in making AYP, even though our results placed us among the top three high schools of 84 in our state. This snapshot, which then must be reported, turns parents to view all that we do and have done into a rough, darkened snapshot.
If I want others to understand and know the beauty of nature and of sunrises and sunsets as I have known and experienced them, I need for those people to experience it directly and even then their experience of it will be unique to mine. My lame attempt to capture it does little justice and will not make a nature lover out of people. The same is true with our educational system.
We need our fellow citizens to be involved in, see directly, and learn firsthand from the many wonderful things we are doing with children in our schools. We must not only tell the stories of our schools and re-frame and reclaim the false narrative of public education, we must also bring the community in, include them in many and varied ways to see first hand the amazing sunsets of our days with our communities’ children. We must continue to progress toward authentic improvement despite the constant pressure for the tainted path of test preparation. We must celebrate holistic learning opportunities and the expression of that learning, not testing season in a lame attempt to motivate students to take it seriously and try their best. Emphasizing testing season as something to get excited about only continues the narrative that it is the sum measure of the importance of what we do.
We must take the policy makers to task and not narrow or limit our view and mission to preparing learners to be merely college and career ready, but to make that the floor and then busting out the ceiling to endless heights of self-fulfillment, happiness, community, and one where sunsets may be fully appreciated and experienced in all their immense beauty, where love and care for self and one another trumps putting or keeping others down to feed a false sense of need for survival, one where people think deeply and critically about the world they live in, the world it has been, and the world they want it to become, and then to have the many complex skills, purpose, and passion to create it.
Try measuring that with a standardized test given en masse while trying to keep costs down. Try measuring the value of the human spirit and mind fulfilled by a life that school is but one part of preparing for. Try feeling the way I felt when I stopped and took in, wholly absorbed that sunset in a complex, chaotic entanglement of all the sum emotions of who I am, want to be, fail to be, try to be, will be, have been, and am ever becoming. See that snapshot above? Doesn’t come close, does it? And no matter how good of a camera you captured it with, so much of that moment’s essence will be lost to even the best photographer. Just as no matter how good of a standardized assessment is created, it can never assess the whole of the value of learning.
We take and love photos. They have value. They tell a story. I love good snapshots and the beauty they contain. Yet I know when I see them they are just that, mere snapshots of the wholeness of a moment experienced and lived by those taking and within them. So goes with standardized assessment. There is perhaps some value in having a general marker, one of a varied mix of measures to see on the large scale where we are at with certain aspects of learning. Many of the most vocal opponents to the crazy testing regime we find ourselves in acknowledge this. But these tests were never designed to be the sole measure our policies have twisted them to be.
We, our social dynamics, our ways of teaching and learning, and of transmitting our culture to our young, they are far too complex, varied, beautiful, tragic, painful, joyful, and so many other qualities to be captured, evaluated, and communicated based on one snapshot, no matter how apt the camera or photographer may be.