It’s been said time and time again; we need to reevaluate the way standardized tests are being conducted in schools, as well as the content within the tests. Are the tests actually measuring the child’s ability to succeed in life through skills such as leadership, collaboration, entrepreneuralism, and so forth, or is the purpose of these mandatory tests to place our children under extremely stressful conditions by answering generic questions, purposely created to be difficult, in order to boost the school district’s statistical ratings?
Testing is important, to a certain degree. It should not be taken out of schools all-together, but rather implemented in a way that is productive for our young children. Many Montessorians believe that current standardized test scores do not adequately reflect classroom performance, and that they can result in unnecessary anxiety and several other stress-induced issues.
Susan Engel, developmental psychologist in the dept. of psychology at Williams College, founder/director of the Williams Program in Teaching, and advocate for fair testing in our schools, writes “Why not test the things we value, and test them in a way that provides us with an accurate picture of what children really do, not what they can do under the most constrained circumstances after the most constrained test preparation?” Below are a few highlights from her blog article in the Boston Globe, discussing important factors that should be measured in our children today, and how we can accurately test them upon these skills.
Here are seven abilities and dispositions that kids should acquire or improve upon — and therefore should be measured — while in school.
Every child should be able to read by the end of elementary school. Just as important, every child should be reading on a regular basis, turning to books and other written material for pleasure and for information. What does it mean to be able to read? It means having the ability to read an essay or book and understand it well enough to use the information in some practical way or to talk about it with another person.When children can and do read, their language and thinking are different. One way to measure reading, then, is to take a close look at their language and thinking. For example, using recordings of children’s everyday speech, developmental psychologists can calculate two important indicators of intellectual functioning: the grammatical complexity of their sentences and the size of their working vocabularies. Why not do the same in schools? We could also employ a written version of this method, collecting random samples of children’s essays and stories for analysis.
Children are born wanting to find things out. But schools have, by and large, done little to build on this valuable impulse. In fact, when children get to school, they ask fewer questions, explore less often and with less intensity, and become less curious. One of the great ironies of our educational system is that it seems to squelch the impulse most essential to learning new things and to pursuing scientific discovery and invention. The good news is that researchers have developed excellent methods for measuring children’s interest in finding things out, as well as their ability to investigate in increasingly deliberate, thorough, and precise ways.There are several ways we might measure a child’s disposition to inquire. We can easily record the number of questions the child asks during a given stretch of time. We can also rate those questions: Does the child ask questions that can be answered with data? Does the child persist in asking questions when he or she doesn’t get the answer right away? Does the child seem to use a range of techniques to get answers (such as asking someone else or manipulating objects)?
- Flexible Thinking and the Use of Evidence
One of the most important capacities to be gained by going to school is the ability to think about a situation in several different ways. This has already been measured in college students. Why not measure it in younger children? Students could write essays in response to a prompt such as “Choose something you are good at and describe to your reader how you do it.” That would allow each student to draw on an area of expertise, assess his or her ability, describe a task logically, and convey real information and substance. A prompt of “Write a description of yourself from a friend’s (or enemy’s) point of view” would help gauge the ability to understand the perspectives of others, another invaluable skill.
Conversations are key to achieving many of the other goals here, but they’re also important in and of themselves. And they’re not hard to measure. Researchers have been analyzing conversations and the development of conversational skill for many years. Methods include looking at how long a conversation is (for example, how many sentences are uttered, how many words are used, how much time the conversation takes), how many turns each speaker takes, how many of these turns are in response to what was just said, how many topics are discussed, how full or deep the coverage of a topic is, and how attuned each speaker is to what has just been said. Outside coders could code children’s conversations for a number of characteristics: turns taken, depth of topic, amount of information exchanged, points of view articulated, and number of agreements and disagreements within the conversation. Analyses could also look at things such as the percentage of students in a given classroom who participate in conversations (to make sure that it’s not just one student or a small group doing all the talking). These analyses would have to take stock of what kinds of things children discuss and in what settings.
Vida had two young sons, both enrolled at the public school in her suburban community on the West Coast. Her older son, Quinn, was short, like his dad. But when you’re 9 years old, being shorter than the other boys is a liability. Quinn wore glasses for nearsightedness, and with his mom’s help he had chosen hip thick-rimmed glasses that had a band around the back to keep them in place; they made him look a little odd, almost as though he were wearing swimming goggles. He was a dreamer, happiest when he was lost in a book. He was reluctant to do sports and unsure of himself on the playground. He began to complain to his mother that he didn’t really have friends at school, and many mornings he didn’t want to go. Vida wasn’t sure how to help him. Then he began to tell her that lunch was the worst. A little boy named Sean, popular, athletic, and in command, had his own special table. All the kids referred to it as “Sean’s table,” and kids could only sit there by invitation. The children in Sean’s inner circle had permanent chairs at the table. Quinn wasn’t in the inner circle; he wasn’t even in the outer circle. Not knowing where to sit was making him miserable.Though this kind of story appears again and again in parenting magazines and every group of parents has shared similar tales of social woe, the issue should be an educational one, not simply a parental ache. Teachers can help children like Quinn learn how to navigate their social settings, and helping children with this skill is surely just as valuable as teaching them to subtract and spell. But perhaps more important, teachers can help kids like Sean learn to resist the natural but undesirable impulse to exclude and dominate others in social settings. In order to do this, teachers need to devote time each day to guiding children through the jungle of social interaction.One of the most robust findings in developmental psychology is that kids learn how to treat one another by watching the way adults treat them and treat each other. Yet few teacher-training programs emphasize the informal ways in which teachers behave. Nor do principals and superintendents attend much to how teachers treat children throughout the day or to how they interact with other teachers.
To find out whether children are regularly absorbed in what they are learning, they need to be assessed in naturalistic settings. The important thing to find out is whether children are provided with opportunities to become fully absorbed in various kinds of activity. It is also essential to assess whether, given those opportunities, they concentrate on what they are doing and are energized by it.
I have argued that first and foremost children should be acquiring a sense of well-being in school. So why not ask them periodically how they feel? Questions might probe what they are working on that they care about, how often they like being there, whether they feel known by adults in the school, and how much of the time they feel interested in at least some of what they are doing. Economists and psychologists have shown that people are pretty reliable when it comes to telling us how happy they are. Why not use this metric in evaluating our schools?