0

Do tests truly measure knowledge?

Justin Willson

Justin Willson

Critics of liberal democracy have often suggested that the slim emolument and limited sense of importance attached to governmental positions will deter the ablest citizens from seeking careers as permanent servants of the state. The British thinker J.S. Mill, however, regarded this "fault" of the system as a "safety valve." He reasoned that if the country's brightest minds ever began turning toward careers in government, the likely end would be a complex and profitable bureaucracy.

Although we can't reason backwards from the disappointing fact that we have a thumping educational world to conclude that the ablest of our times have entered its doors, we do hope that, unlike society at large, those at the top are more publicly-minded and less out of touch with their body, the students.

Unfortunately, what officials in the educational world represent are often not students but job security and its insurance, namely, tests. I brushed against the first interest after a district supervisor observed one of my SAT prep lessons. She told me: "Stick to the state standards. That's what you'll be judged on. Let the SAT take care of itself."

I pointed out that in the last year, only two students at the school had scored above 1,000 and that this was the most important test as far as college goes. Of course, her point was valid: You can't teach if you lose the job over low district test scores. But it lacked soundness. Where was the student in her reasoning?

As for the second interest, the state and district educational worlds now shadow a high-tech business model by which corporations monitor production. The student produces goods from the material a teacher delivers. The test tracks the profit of this transaction. In the last year, the Dougherty County School System has spent a fortune on test technology. I can now exhume the elementary school test scores of my high school students. On a recent Wednesday, every subject not tested by the state was tested by the district.

What will we learn about our students from all this data, even if the tests are well-made? Of course, they have not been in the past. When I went back last year, I found that the district's 11th-grade winter literature exam repeated 14 of 35 items from the students' ninth-and 10th-grade years. Such shallow monitoring tells us very little about the student.

The impression one generally gets is that no one takes the fuss over test data seriously, especially not the students. And this means we don't learn much. We worry because they don't regard the tests as indicative of what they know.

Can we blame them? The state has changed the mathematics curriculum, a pillar of objectivity, twice in five years. It has "rolled out" curriculum changes across the board three times since 2000. Doesn't this point to a deep confusion on our part about what constitutes knowledge and how it works?

We should admit that our tests, like the curriculum they represent, do not lie outside of the ideological shuffles of society. They probably should. But we should remember that the U.S. has a tradition of using measurements to make ideological statements. We still resist the metric system. We risk losing the trust of our students when we act as if our measuring standards mark off inherently human achievements.

When thinking about how to measure knowledge, we should remember that the word "essay" originally meant "a test" or "trying out." Like the "foot" of ancient times, which represented a close approximation, a written or oral measure, as opposed to a standardized test, leaves room for a mark of character and allows the student to distinguish himself.

No matter how technological we become, writing and speaking with another human will remain the baseline point at which any knowledge becomes useful. The proverbial "pons asinorum" acknowledges this truth even in the exact sciences. Forcing the student to judge himself through a medium as impersonal and majority-determined as a state test is flat insulting.

Perhaps we teachers have become quite lazy. Perhaps unable to justify our own conceptions of knowledge to ourselves, we have become unfamiliar with humility and now feel uncomfortable measuring students against ourselves. Do we welcome the state promise of tidiness?

Nonetheless, the only human test of distinction will always lie in face-to-face, case-by-case encounters. If we do have anything to teach our students, it certainly is this mark of respectability.

Justin Willson is an English teacher at Dougherty High School.

Comments

FryarTuk 1 year, 7 months ago

I am left with the impression that Mr. Willson writes if not teaches to entertain himelf.

0

Sister_Ruby 1 year, 7 months ago

NO WAY the kids in Willson's classes could read this with comprension. Yes I miss-spelled that last word on porpoise.

0

MRKIA 1 year, 7 months ago

NO WAY 99% OF DCSS STUDENTS OR 80% OF ASU FOR THAT MATTER WOULD COMPREHEND THIS LOFTY PROSE. LOVE TO SEE A COMMENT FROM BVR. I HAD TO READ IT TWICE MYSELF.

0

ConcernedVoter 1 year, 7 months ago

I cannot agree with Mr. Wilson more. I, too, was high criticized in my teaching for trying to teach above the standards so that my students could be competitive in their entire post-secondary endeavors. It seems our only goal as secondary educators now is to keep the numbers right so that the administration and school looks good, and "damned be he who dares" to try to go beyond the minimum and challenge the students.

Fryar Tuk, you obvioiusly have never taught. I wish you would spend a day with Mr. Wilson and experience his classes and then respond to his essay. It would be well worth your time.

0

FryarTuk 1 year, 7 months ago

Well, my taking time away from work to teach is just a " proverbial "pons asinorum" ". I've never been able to get the ass across the bridge as it were.

0

waltspecht 1 year, 7 months ago

Testing has it's place and always has been a useful tool. Problems came about when people found they could earn a living at using testing. In the late fifties and early sixties we faced daily quizes, and weekly tests to aquaint us with the procedures and basically to get used to the process so you could relax. Must have worked as I had a Nesep, SAT and Regents schlorships when I went to CCNY for free because of my grades. The schlorship paid for books, student fees and transportation. High Schools used to be rated on the amount of Schlorship money their seniors generated. Afterall, weren't the schools supposed to teach? If they taught correctly, then the test grade was a given. No, they didn't teach the tests, as that was about impossible to do. They taught the knowledge and hopefully you retained it. Plus I like the Gentleman's name. Can he cook like the other one with that name? Heck, can he mouth call Mallards?

1

FryarTuk 1 year, 7 months ago

This Justin has got two l's in his last name, waltspecht. The other one was a great humorist and about the best coonass cook in the world. jes' so! umm umm.

0

waltspecht 1 year, 7 months ago

Not just a humorist and a cook, but a Safety Man in the Oil Industry. Highly accomplished Duck Hunter and a real joy to be with in a Pick-up truck dog hunting Deer. You laugh so hard you have got to stop and wipe your eyes clear, with him complaining your going to lose track of the chase if you don't hurry up and drive. He is missed by many.

1

TheBoss 1 year, 7 months ago

Sorry Walt. Your last 2 comments will go over the heads of 99% of the readers here.

0

LoneCycler 1 year, 7 months ago

Only two students at DHS scored above 1,000 on the SAT last year! That is astonishingly bad. The Justin Wilson referred to by waltspecht was also an educator.

0

MRKIA 1 year, 7 months ago

IT APPEARS THAT THE SMART AREN'T GETTING ANY SMARTER AND THE DUMB ARE GETTING DUMBER.

0

agirl_25 1 year, 7 months ago

My kids were military brats and bored stiff with regular city/county schools. They loved the DOD (Department of Defense) schools because of the teachers and the way they were taught. The times they had to go to regular school they were whiney and miserable so I would take them out and we would sort of home school. For geography we would hit the road.....go across the US and drive, for instance, to the Mississippi River, even go see the famous Tallahatchie bridge that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off of in the song "Ode to Billy Joe". We drove across the Mississippi River 4 times for good luck. At times I took them overseas too, to see things they only read about in history books...to experience it first hand. At times their Dad got an overseas assignment so we really got to soak up knowledge. They learned reading and math by reading maps, and could probably get from point A to point B quicker than most adults at a very tender age. I despised tests. Still do. I don't think they measure anything. When I finally had to settle down and put my kids in school they were bored stiff but I promised my son (he was really bored) that if he held out for his final 2 years of high school it would be worth it. He did and it was. The girl did fine. They are both very productive people in their fields today and have traveled the world.....and have done well when they HAD to take tests!!......when the state required them for their jobs....they are both licensed professionals.

Mr. Willson......do you speak to your students the way you write.......don't.....I don't care if they are advanced students.......talk to them like teens should be talked to.......like kids......

1

Sister_Ruby 1 year, 7 months ago

Are any DCSS kids passing this guy's courses?

0

Sign in to comment