Monday, January 17, 2011

We would prefer not to take your tests.

This was also published in the Huffington Post.  You can check it out there along with the several dozen readers comments here.

Around the nation more and more school districts like New York City are considering making teacher performance ratings public. One of the many problems with this, simply put, is that the state tests which these tests are based on, well...they suck. Yep. I said it. My background is in K - 8 as a literacy and technology as a former literacy coach, tech coach, library media specialist, and current innovation manager who spent many days grading these subpar assessments. Because of my background and experience, I’m going to focus on the high stakes standard literacy tests K - 8 and explain why they suck.

Background In Reading Assessment
Students read at different levels. Each level has attributes associated with it and there are strategies that learners can take to move to the next level. Teachers assess student reading levels with something called a running record. Today with technology, these readings can even be recorded, so if necessary, the student’s actual running record or reading assessment could be shared. Teachers generally assess student reading at the beginning, middle and end of the year and can easily measure the growth of a student say from a G-Level reader to a J-Level reader. This makes sense as a measurement of student learning. It also allows for students to independently take ownership of their reading level and it is very easy to get families involved in strategies to support students. 

The Problem with State Reading Tests
State reading tests provide all students on a grade level with the same test. While the test is an accurate measure of the students who fit the reading level the state arbitrarily has chosen, most students are left behind either because the reading level is too advanced or too easy. In essence the tests assess how well students are doing on something they can’t read well yet...Answer: Not very well. OR...we assess them on something that is below their reading level...So we don’t know growth, we only know they can read that well. 

In another words, we’re not really assessing student reading level.

What we do know is that developmentally children become ready to read at different ages (click this link to hear John Taylor Gatto's thoughts on this). We also know that forcing reading on children is actually a deterrent for attaining growth. Finally, we know two extremely important factors in the attainment of reading fluency is family involvement and socio economic class. 

None of these factors are in the control of the teacher!

What I propose is that we stop creating a test that makes teachers and students absolutely bonkers, and instead use the running record reading assessments that teachers already use to measure student reading level. Though, while this solves this issue of assessing reading more accurately, it doesn’t take into account that the factors that accelerate reading, really have nothing to do with the teacher. 

On to writing...
As shared in Four Reasons Innovative Educators Should Boycott Standardized Tests, the problem with the way writing is assessed in standardized tests stems from the fact they use an outdated and irrelevant method of assessment. If teachers are doing their jobs effectively, students aren’t just focusing on hand it in teaching. Instead they are focused on “publish it” learning, meaning students are communicating authentically to real audiences using the learning style that best matches their strengths. Student work can ideally be kept in a portfolio that can be assessed for writing achievement.

Wouldn’t you want to measure a teacher by how she helps her students publish for authentic audiences in area of deep personal passion rather than how she helps a student write about a topic the state dictates?

The problem with the current method is this.
  • We are not measuring what is important. The student’s ability to authentically communicate about topics of importance to them.
  • We are valuing writing as the most important method of communication. While this method works well for some, others may excel at communicating through video, cartoon, animation, audio casts etc. etc. We are losing focus of what is important.
  • Studies show that students empowered to use technology for communicating will demonstrate improvement however, their scores on writing the old fashioned way with pen and paper will decrease. Sadly, I’ve seen teachers refuse to let students use their own technology because they didn’t want their test scores to decrease. YIKES!!!
Not only is all of this bad enough, but these are high stakes tests for students too, meaning, if they don’t pass, they don’t move on to the next grade level doomed to sit through the same stuff that didn’t help them learn before and putting them in a category that diminishes their chances of success in the future.

This should give just a little insight into why these “teacher assessment” are really not the right way to go. If you’re convinced, you might be thinking, okay, that sounds nice, but there’s nothing we can do. The state makes us take these tests. 

There is a movement bubbling up called The Bartleby Project started by John Taylor Gatto which you can read about here. It’s a call to action for students to simply write across the top of their test, “I prefer not to take your test.” The premise being that students and parents should be empowered to decided how their child should best be assessed and not forced by the state to be subjected to very questionable assessments. 

The project has a growing following with a Bartleby Project Facebook Page, a number of reprints of John Taylor Gatto’s Bartleby Project proposal from his new book,Weapons of Mass Instruction floating around the web, and a huge round up of videos on You Tube. I’ve included two X-tranormal creations below.

One is a short video from a child’s perspective and the other is taking from John Taylor Gatto’s proposal for those who prefer watching to listening.


  1. WTG!! The message needs to get out there to the public! It is not that teachers do not want accountability it is that we want a fair assessment of the child's growth. We want developmentally appropriate assessments! Thank you for writing this article!

  2. @Plants seeds of knowledge...for our future!
    I know! Great teachers work their butts off. They'd like to be assessed on what matters. Hear! Hear!

  3. During the 1990s, there was an experimental math exam known as the PAM. Students would answer 6 math questions. These questions were multistep and required students to show how they solved the problem. More importantly, teachers had to mark them holistically and rate their ability to solve the problem with a scale of 1-6. This in turn gave teachers an in depth understanding on how their students communicated with math. It is a shame that this kind of assessment never caught on.

  4. @Jacob Gutnicki, that is a shame. The other shame is that math is not taught as a relevant subject. We are told it is important because folks say so. Learning cuz I'm told people say so does not help me learn no matter how good the teacher or no matter how fair the assessment. I don't know advanced math because no educator explained why it was important. Is that the fault of the teacher or the fault of the test or THE FAULT OF THE SYSTEM?

  5. The problem with teaching math is a very complex problem. It stems from the fact that most of us for several generations were taught math incorrectly. For the most part it has been viewed as an algorithmic process. Subsequently, many teachers not only do not know how to teach math, they often do not know the content.

    Naturally, your point is right on target. For example, if a teacher were to show how math can help one program a flash animation, an iPad app, problem solve malfunctioning servers, cook more effectively, have a balanced meal and budget, or help redesign a house, we would all love and learn math. Additionally, if the assessment accounted for how one solves such a problem, it would be a worthwhile experience .

  6. Jacob, I never learned math. I don't know if I would have been good at math, but my issue with learning is that I need to connect what I'm doing to authentic work. That does not mean making something up that could be real, but something that is actually real. For instance, I use excel quite well because I have to do real, authentic work, yet order of operations was something that never stuck.

    That said, I think student's math assessment should be real/authentic as well. If we can't think of any way our assessments can be real to the lives of students, why do they need to know the topic?

    Are assessments are very off as is the idea that everyone should progress at the same time when we know that developmentally people progress at different rates.