21. Tests

I’ve always loved taking tests. They’re much easier than real life, for me, because there are right and wrong answers. If you get right answers, people think you must have something going for you. What they don’t know is that what I have going for me is quite simply that I love taking tests.
I’ve always had friends who hated taking tests. They studied all night while I relaxed, then they got nervous, got headaches, and took the tests. They always knew they’d done terribly, and sometimes, they actually had done terribly. Some found out that they had aced the tests after “knowing” they had done terribly. Most did about as well as I did, which meant they couldn’t go to Harvard, but they probably wouldn’t flunk out, either.
Later, when I gave children tests, occasionally I would see a child who liked tests as I had, but mostly I saw what I’d seen in my friends. As a teacher, I grew to hate giving tests. For one thing, children were not allowed to help each other. I had set up a healthy community of learners, and I was pulling the rug out from under them. “I know you’re used to helping each other, but on this test you’re not supposed to.”
I wasn’t fooling anyone. This was not the exception; this was the rule. The community of learners was the exception, and all my efforts to get children to support each other were just games. They weren’t real life. This test was real life. It was printed in official-looking print. Though the bottom line may have read, “Go on to the next page,” or “STOP,” they knew the real bottom line: “How do you measure up?”
The solution? Simple. Don’t give tests. Trust that the teachers are teaching as well as they ought to and the learners are learning as well as they can. There are no data offered by tests that can’t be uncovered better in less painful ways. Most parents know how well their children are learning. Those who don’t can find out without tests.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There are other factors I haven’t mentioned yet. The taxpayers are the real employers of the teachers. Some taxpayers, even some involved in helping professions, want cold, hard data verifying their employees’ efficacy. They want quality control. Tests seem like a form of quality control. They aren’t. I really believe they aren’t. I remember my high school chemistry teacher, who taught us how to take the New York State chemistry regents examination instead of teaching us chemistry. Tests don’t measure learning. They measure test-taking skill.
Most teachers (I’m tempted to say “all teachers,” but I probably shouldn’t) hold themselves accountable for children’s learning. That’s why we’re teachers. We’re not in it for the money, the fame, or even the vacations. When we hear that our employers (the taxpayers) want to make sure we’re teaching, it sounds reasonable. But there isn’t some company in Princeton, New Jersey or anywhere else that can tell you what you really want to know. All they can do is give you scores, percentiles, and stanine ratings. Probably, deep down inside, you’re more interested in what’s going on for your child. And I really don’t believe that tests are going to tell you much about that.

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