> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: January 2009

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tough tests

Imagine you sign up for a job where your boss gives you feedback every week on how well you are doing. At first you feel you are doing well. Your boss is making allowances for it being a new job. You are feeling hopeful. You find the job quite interesting and it has several really good perks. Then things start to get a little sticky. Your boss isn’t actually publicizing your appraisal, but all employee appraisals are given out at the same time, so of course it is natural that you and your fellow employees will trade appraisals. Sometimes another person will approach you to ask you what the boss said to you about your participation in some project or other. Sometimes you will simply tell someone else what the boss said.

Before long, you realize that there are more people invested in that appraisal than just you. Your family, for example, want to know how things are going. They ask you every day. Some family members get really upset if things don’t go that well. Soon you begin to realize that you are being ranked against all the other employees in your section, and that you are definitely not one of the top achievers. Those who get that special status –usually the same people every week- are given a lot of praise and encouragement.

So what do you do now? Career counselors would, without hesitation, advise a career change. Not everyone can handle a job like that, although granted there are some who will thrive in that environment. Those who ‘perform’ better will love the affirmation they get from being placed top of the list.

You follow the advice of family and friends. They remind you that life is like this. It turns out that almost all of them have held the same job at one time or another. Some of them liked it, some of them hated it. They offer different kinds of advice ranging from ‘Try harder.’ to ‘The hell with them!’ You are hopeful by nature. You want to do well at your job. You try harder. But things don’t improve. No matter what you do you can’t get onto that special list of top people. You really feel like you want to get out.

There’s only one problem.

You are six years old and you have got 12 more years of this to go. The job you are trying to hold down is simply being a student and the boss is your teacher.

Okay, so I am being emotive, but that’s what we are doing with a high number of our children in school. We are obsessing so much about testing that we are failing to see how unhappy and unproductive our constant testing makes many students.

I am not advocating no testing or grading. I am not saying that we should pretend that some students are not academically more able than others. All I am suggesting is that we dethrone ‘testing’ as the central experience of school. Our schools should be places which focus on learning not testing.

We have to have tests –but let’s make them less focused on ranking students and more on how to learn better. Let’s give students targets for themselves, not bars that only a few can jump. Let’s stop putting our children through something we would refuse as adults.