Thinking Outside the Test
By Bob Houghtaling
All kids are capable of learning. In fact, they demonstrate this every day. No matter their abilities, each child is picking up skills, social norms and additional understanding throughout the day. Much of this is done in the home and community. Communication skills, tying shoes and getting along with others are seemingly simple, yet extremely complex when you come to think about it. Yes, kids are capable of learning (and they consistently do so). Why then has schooling young people become so controversial? Why do we feel that our schools are not functioning at an optimal level?
What happens at school can have an enduring impact on our lives. For adults reading this most of you can remember a favorite teacher, friends, maybe getting into trouble, and success or failure in class. On top of the academics, there was a school culture you had to navigate. That is why it’s deeply concerning that the measurements we use to rate and evaluate schools are overly test and statistic based. Much more is happening in schools than test scores. In addition, each school community faces a unique set of learning challenges. Somehow, we have been led to believe that those schools with the highest test scores are the best ones. This is not fair to students. It also is not fair to those who work with them.
Schools are cultures. Sure, academics is a main goal, but so is belonging, becoming a citizen, exploring clubs and extracurricular activities and experiencing a sense of extended community. It is essential that in our perpetual quest for school reform we expand how schools are evaluated. Every sports fan realizes the enormous difference between the statistics accumulated by Rotisserie Sports and what really happens on the field. The great Wilt Chamberlain once averaged over 50 points per game yet fell short of winning the championship. The team that constantly defeated his, the Boston Celtics, had few statistical leaders, but created a culture that promoted winning. Hustle isn’t a statistic. Unselfishness isn’t one either. Intangibles are powerful ingredients.
It is right we demand quality schools which help provide skills that prepare kids for their future. In doing so, I hope we remind ourselves that schools are not ‘just’ the sum of their scores. They are places young learners interact with caring adults. They are places where friendships are established. They are (or should be) places where possibility abounds. Some schools face enormous challenges due to poverty, language barriers and community support/expectations. While all kids can learn–many face different and daunting challenges. Yes, we can do better, but castigating the efforts of teachers and ignoring societal impact is short sighted. Most schools have much to offer.
Perhaps in addition to testing, schools might also be provided an opportunity to create a portfolio that explains successes and challenges. This portfolio would include the so called “touchy feely” stuff I am speaking to. Districts would submit a document detailing why they are greater than the sum of their parts. In fact, these portfolios, after being submitted to authorities, might be shared with other school systems. This sharing would promote learning and collaboration between schools. We could learn from each other.
All too often scores are used for political reasons rather than as a measurement tool. This often results in knee-jerk assertions regarding what is happening (or not) in the classroom. It has been said that a ruler never made anyone grow an inch. Hopefully our leaders will carefully examine a myriad of considerations.
Top down, politically charged measures that look for quick fixes will not help educate our children. Embracing the whole child through some statistical measures, as well as recognizing those very important intangibles, will help us better understand challenges and successes involving schools. Promoting healthy learning cultures should include looking at a much larger picture.
Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program.