The last cartons of standardized state test booklets were just shipped back from the school buildings I serve, hopefully marking the end of an asinine era of high-stakes test administration in the Fall. Michigan is rumored to be moving to a Spring testing schedule, using more advanced and frankly harder assessments next year, but at least it will be after children and teachers have shared mostly a year of learning together, rather than a summer apart, a new teacher, and content from the prior year.
But testing's not all bad and it's hard to articulate why. Some folks believe learning shouldn't or can't be measured because it's experiential and contextual. Others believe that we must measure things receiving tax funding, regardless of validity of the results, so that we can filter down to only the "best of the best".
Who hasn't been in this scenario? Two people are in a car, not yet to their destination. One, usually the passenger, is holding a map or GPS that indicates the vehicles location. One or both are fervently fussing about where they are versus where they should be. Perhaps someone is also pointing out all the details of where they went wrong and reiterating how they aren't at their destination. What the white-knuckled driver really needs is clear feedback on where s/he is and guidance on the next step to get there. Do either of these people blame the map or GPS? Do they question its validity? Could they take ownership and control of the situation, knowing what they know now?
To be effective at anything, people use indicators of success and feedback for adjustment toward ultimate success of a goal. If one starts with a clear goal, one should be able to exhibit progress and completion of that goal. "Where do I want to go? How am I doing? What am I doing next?" are the questions John Hattie summarizes about how an individual, or a system, makes learning visible (Visible Learning, 2009).
The real question is not about the testing itself. The real question is how do we enculture continuous improvement without inciting fear, or affirming reality, of ulterior motives to sort and select people? It is a complex proposal that we gather evidence to guide teaching and learning, knowing full well that the same evidence that showing where we need to go, defines where we are not yet. How do we measure student learning and our own work? Testing, as it were, is not a simple activity and not simply an activity, but a measurement device or a map if we are to take responsibility for the next generation of humans, or someone else's child.