I’ve been struggling recently with what it means for students to be successful. I’m concerned about a recent trend in educational policies that swing from one extreme to the other, i.e., testing mania versus free range learning. It has struck me that both ends of the spectrum often use “success” as the reason to do what they do. But, I think both miss the point.
Let me start by defining my terms. When I talk about testing mania, I’m really talking about school-wide quantitative research. The No Child Left Behind Law essentially requires this type of research because it has to be “scientifically proven”. Evidently, this will ensure success. Completely out of the game is qualitative research which is more in-depth and is done in a small group (like a single classroom) and therefore doesn’t have a big enough cohort, nor can you create a testing environment which creates a “sterile field.” The problem with it is that it cannot be generalized to all students. Only quantitative research, large group testing, is supported under the law which is why states are clamoring for it. Without results from these types of tests, the federal government will not provide schools with needed monies. It’s the power of the purse-strings, baby.
It seems to me that the problems with basing a school’s modus operandi on these juggernauts are obvious, but out of fairness, I’ll list my favorites. One, big testing as an assessment is only one of thousands of important assessments educators do and by only looking at one marker, you seriously misread your students. It’s the problem of trying to use a snapshot to write a biography. Two, and most importantly tests are written and read with certain purposes in mind. It is not unusual to run across tests which are specifically written to boost the scores of one group over another. More frequently, and less nefariously, tests are used to come to conclusions which they never meant speak to. And some of our best minds fall victim to it. Enter Ken Robinson. It’s the reason why I support the Seattle teachers’ boycott of testing. The MAP testing is not a fair or reasonable test and it’s results are used incorrectly.
At the other end of the spectrum, when I talk about “free-range learning”, I am talking about those schools that do no assessments what-so-ever, qualitative or quantitative. They are absolutely certain that criticism damages children’s innate ability to grow and discover. These are schools where the words “fun”, “student-centered”, and “student-driven” outweigh all other concepts. They are based on the idea that all children are perfect learners, are naturally equipped to learn all things, and if society would only get out of their way, they will succeed. These are often schools where students only do what and how much of a project they want to do.
Sounds great doesn’t it? But there are some major disadvantages which I’ve seen qualitatively. I’ll explain the major one, and I think it is by far the most important. In my experience, these students are frequently unable to take appropriate risks. They become very, very good at what they like or want to do but will categorically refuse to do anything they have to work for. Dig deeper, and you discover that the reason they don’t like to do it (whatever “it” is) is because there is an underlying problem making it difficult for them. If the school stops paying attention when the child decides he or she is done, learning issues do not come to light. I’m not qualified to state whether or not a student has a learning disability. I am, however, qualified to identify a learning deficit. When a child is not making progress, I start asking questions. Time and time again, my questions have unearthed an issue (vision, dental, silent seizures, are some examples) which, once identified and acted upon, allows the child to take the risks needed to grow. Students realize that they aren’t “stupid” (their words, not mine), they just needed someone to recognize they were struggling.
So this is what I was musing on when I saw this article. The Guardian reports that British teachers in a primary school make the statement that a quantitative test given to students will 1) get rid of their arts program and 2) make the students feel like failures. I’m not sure why this would be. You can have an arts program and testing. I’ve seen it done. Also, students will only feel like failures if you present it to them in that way. Although I’m clearly not a friend to standardized testing, I’ve seen it have its uses. Their teacher’s union is giving me emotional reasons why the test is bad for the school, not reasonable ones.
Large quantitative tests do not necessarily make students feel like failures. (Although, I strongly suspect that the real fear is how it will make the teachers feel along with any repercussions attached to the findings.) The adults who report on the findings of the test are the ones who make students feel like failures by how they talk about it. Sure, if you nail up on a wall all the students’ scores and then parade them all past whacking each one who didn’t pass on the head, yeah, you’re gonna make enemies. As you should. But a respectful dialog, with transparency about what’s being tested, and how to fill those gaps? No. Students will understand. Even young ones. What they will feel is respected because you are talking to them like they matter, and further, you are going to help them fill those gaps. But then, you must actually help them fill those gaps.
Which brings me to the question of what makes students feel successful. I’ve come to know that those things I have to work for, those things I struggle to do, are more important to me than those things that were easy. This is why I cringe when I hear about schools where students are not required to take appropriate risks and push their comfort levels. When they come to me, those students have often had an inflated egos and yet were enormously afraid of work. They have been so afraid of failing that they have been academically paralyzed.
Which brings me to the last thing I have seen recently concerning feeling successful. It’s this:
Let me say, it’s not for the kiddies, unfortunately. Although the message itself would be understandable by middle schoolers, the foul language David Wong uses makes it inappropriate in a professional environment. To paraphrase, drastically, Wong posits these six ideas. 1) The world only cares about what you can do for it. 2) The world expects you to be successful. 3) Success is about benefiting others. 4) When you are successful, you like yourself more. 5) Self-esteem comes from success not failures. 6) Success is hard work. But click on the link. It’s also really funny. And don’t forget to answer his questions at the beginning.
Wong’s truths are what both the testing world and the free-range learning world miss. Both take students at face value and both attempt to create their academic world by these conclusions. The score on a standardized test may make or break a student. (Ask me, I’m currently facing down the GREs.) On the other hand, a school where a learning disability is not recognized will definitely make or break a student. (Ask me, I wasn’t recognized as dyslexic until college when my academic life became absolute hell.) If a school really wants students to be successful, it will not shy away from testing if it will help get a better picture of the needs of the class or the student. It will also demand that students learn how to work, even when they don’t want to. That way success lies.