Thursday, February 19, 2004

Alternatives to standardized testing

I can't remember how many times I've read this guy's column and disagreed, usually vehemently. However, I have to give him credit. Here's a very satisfying interview with Deborah Meier about alternatives to standardized testing.

Deborah Meier started a school in East Harlem called the Central Park East school for low-income families. What she says about standardized testing is right on:
    Furthermore, if we are not measuring something of importance then spending most of our resources on trying to do the unimportant better is bad, not good. The titles of the test make them look sensible. It takes time, and talking with kids, to realize they are not measuring basics -- or advanced knowledge, either. Even the 6th-grade math test asks questions that neither you nor I have ever faced since we left school. Ditto the tests in literature (so-called reading). Even so-called authentic writing tests are scored according to a formula -- the scorers devote a minute or two per essay. This kind of test misleads us about what constitutes effective written communication, not to mention other forms of communication -- like the spoken word. And God help us when they start testing in science and history!

    Not only do the tests not measure basics, but they also distract us from teaching the kind of stuff that might engage kids' minds and hearts, stuff that would force them to engage in the real discipline of intellectual life -- weighing evidence, seeing other ways of looking at the same data or situation, comparing and contrasting, seeking patterns, conjecturing, even arguing. The trouble with such skills is they don't come packaged with right/wrong answers.
For more about her and her school, here is a 1994 account. Her philosophy is described here:
    Meier's pedagogical goals have remained clear and constant for nearly twenty years at Central Park East. She aims to create a better informed, better equipped, and more engaged person who can play a greater part in her community.

    My ideas on teaching and learning focus on small "d" democratic values, by which I mean a respect for diversity, a respect for the potential of each individual person, a respect for opposing points of view, and a respect for considerable intellectual vigor. My concern is with how students become critical thinkers and problem solvers, which is what a democratic society needs. If we believe that our schools are failing us and that children can't learn the basic skills, then what we are saying is that democracy is a utopian ideal, an impossibility, and I just don't believe that. There is nothing in the nature of being human that makes democracy an impossibility.

    Admittedly, not every teacher would favor adopting Central Park East's methodology. Debbie Meier is a politically committed, unabashed social democrat, and she and her cohorts were staunch believers in progressive education. In some quarters Meier's agenda provokes substantial skepticism; the average parent may not know much about the educational crisis, but strongly suspects that it all started with the new math. To a lot of people, "progressive education" sounds like something that has failed already.
And achievement has been high, as measured by standardized scores. They thrive in this environment.
    The Central Park East schools are an example of what talented teachers can do when they are free to design their own curricula and run their own schools. In District Four, we told teachers with ideas for their dream schools, "Go ahead and try them. We'll support you." The most common initial reaction was disbelief. Their second reaction was to go out and start a lot of wonderful new schools that did not look like one another or like regular public schools.

    What started as a desperate response to a crumbling school district has turned into a vigorous and vital renaissance with the potential to transform the city's schools. Indeed, the transformation that Debbie Meier and other educators have brought about in East Harlem can be a model for reversing problems in the schools on a national level. We believe that bureaucracy does not solve problems; it creates them. We understand better than ever today that there is no such thing as just one way to educate all children. These forces are leading us in the direction of de-bureaucratization, decentralization, school-site autonomy, and choice for parents, students, and teachers. It worked in District Four, and there is more than sufficient reason to believe that it will work in many other places as well.