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‘Tis the 2016 standardized testing season around the country and there are, naturally, stories about computer breakdowns, stupid test questions, parents opting their children out of the tests, etc. But Peter Greene,  a veteran teacher of English in a small town in Pennsylvania, identifies a different problem with testing that gets short shrift but, he says, may be as important as any other.  While many kids get super-anxious — and some physically sick — over having to take high-stakes tests, some kids who are supposed to take the test seriously just don’t, Greene says. This appeared on Greene’s Curmudgucation blog, and he gave me permission to publish.

By Peter Greene

It’s testing season, and that means we are hearing the annual recitation of stories of despair and misery among the students, as small children are pressed to and past their breaking point. These stories are heartbreaking and rage-inducing all at the same time, but they aren’t the only story. They probably aren’t even the most common story, and they may not even be the most important story.

If you give a human, particularly a young human, a task to complete, one that seems difficult and yet pointless, unpleasant and yet with no real stakes for that human, what is the most common response? (Remember that some of the Big Standardized Tests that students take are used for the purpose of evaluating teachers and schools, not individual students.)

a) To try their hardest because even if it seems pointless, it might not be, and I always do my best.
b) This is a stupid waste of my time, so I will zip through it quickly so it wastes the least possible time.
c) I will avoid frustration by not caring and not trying.
d) Look, a butterfly!

Testocrats are so certain that their work is so hugely important that they can’t imagine how anyone could fail to see the Importance of the Test. In a weird way, the student meltdown stories actually confirm their judgment.

But all the data, all the analysis of the data, all the conclusions based on the data — all of that starts with the assumption that the students who took the Big Standardized Test actually tried.

Teachers have only a couple of choices here. We can try to cash in the trust we’ve built in our classrooms. Every fall, I promise my students that I will never purposely waste their time; when test time rolls around, I could just lie to them. But that seems, you know, wrong. Morally and ethically wrong.Teachers can make the test relevant to students by making it central to the class, the culmination of learning for the year. This is what test prep really means– not just teaching test-taking tips and material strictly because it will be on the test, but making the test the whole point of education. This seems like, you know, educational malpractice and a huge devaluation of education itself.

Teachers can also try things like flat-out bribery. That seems like an admission of defeat and a betrayal of the rest of the students’ education.

Or teachers can watch as students complete 20 multiple-choice questions in three minutes (of course, we’re not allowed to offer help or say “Get serious, Pat!”) and write three-word essay answers and remember that experience months later when someone is trying to claim that the test tells us something useful about what Pat does or doesn’t know.

Pat will whip through the test, take a nap, and leave school for the day happy and unbothered. Pat’s blowing off of the test may even make a good story for Pat to tell that makes Pat look pretty cool in the circle of friends. Pat’s story is neither touching nor heartbreaking. But I sure wish the people who think that Pat’s test tells anybody anything could be there to watch Pat take the test. Because even if the tests weren’t lousy assessments that are incapable of evaluating what students have really learned, Pat’s results still wouldn’t tell us a single thing of importance.