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.