Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Testing Symbols

New York has done it again. For yet another year, English and math test scores have risen. This time, officials and newspaper writers are using words like "skyrocket" to describe the test results. Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Education are claiming that all the recent reforms have made the difference and that the schools in New York are drastically improving. That may be the case, but I'm not satisfied. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the scores are going up. But I can't help but be a little suspicious about what it all means.

First, as Eduwonkette posted on her blog (which should be read regularly), "Is there any reason to believe that teachers suddenly became several times more successful in improving ELA and Math skills?" It's a fair question. Assuming that the scores are valid (as opposed to an easier test) and achievement has gone up across the state, what makes the difference? Has there been a dramatic increase in teacher quality? Have the kids just gotten smarter? What happened from last year to this year?

Ultimately, we'll never know simply because there are too many variables to consider. Of course, that didn't stop the state DOE from chiming in that funding has been increased, that curriculums have been set and embraced, and that the system is responding to the realities of testing.

It's this last point that chills me as it should anyone who has seen the tests given to kids and been present to witness the culture that it breeds. Do we really want a system that responds so well to the testing culture?

What's been lost in New York - and indeed, across the country - is the understanding that testing and accountability are means, not ends. Seeing test scores rise is good, but is not an end in itself. Or at least it shouldn't be. So little of life consists of taking multiple choice tests that I have to worry about an education system that focuses almost exclusively on teaching kids how to succeed at taking multiple choice tests. As anyone who's taught a test prep unit knows, good scores reflect testing savvy almost as much as they reflect actual reading or math ability.

So now we know that kids in New York are getting better at being tested on their reading. But are they reading for pleasure and information? Are they applying the lessons of literature to the world around them? There's no test for that, nor should there be. But in the end, that's the goal that we should be striving for.

As I've written before, I worry that symbolic action will take the place of real action. In this case, the symbol is the improved test scores. Whether or not children are better educated or better prepared for life remains to be seen. I hope that as a system we can keep working toward that goal rather than see victory in a symbol and call it a day.

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