Tests should pack more punch

Michael Alcorn

It occurs to me that, since the first major education reforms I talked about was to make four non-tested areas of the curriculum more important, some might conclude that I am an opponent of testing.

I’m not. I’ve been tested my whole life, and I kinda like testing (I’m sick that way). One thing I learned from martial arts is that the only way to discover your weaknesses is to test yourself—failure brings self-awareness, self-awareness brings strength. Testing is good.

But more than just testing, I prefer authentic, meaningful testing. Getting kicked in the head is authentic and meaningful. Painful, too ... and a little embarrassing.

Students in the schools these days don’t take all that many meaningful tests. I think of the “Harry Potter” stories, where students at the end of their fifth years take the “Ordinary Wizarding Levels” test, which dictates the number of and kinds of choices the students get to pursue in their sixth and seventh years. That’s meaningful! In fact, many countries around the world use something similar — England (real England, not Harry Potter England) has frequent standardized testing which determines which students get to proceed through the education system; China has an intense testing regime which students will take years preparing for; and Finland, the latest “newest, best thing” in the education world, has almost no standardized testing, with the notable exception of the national matriculation exam, which students must pass in order to pass out of high school and proceed to college.

Here in Jefferson County, we had the CSAP… or the TCAP … now we have the PARCC. Every student from third grade on takes it once a year, in the past, it’s occupied weeks worth of classroom time, and it means ... nothing. We call it “high-stakes testing,” but it isn’t: It has almost zero bearing on student matriculation, but, boy, do the schools and teachers get worked up about it. And then, on top of that, there are about 17 other standardized tests that students take, starting in kindergarten and going all the way through until they finally encounter the one meaningful test in all of it — the ACT, which controls many aspects of college choices. Lots of testing, lots of money for testing corporations, lots of stress, some useful information for teachers, very little either authentic or meaningful for students.

Can we, possibly, do something better? What if we gave one — ONE — test at the end of each term, assessing what the students were supposed to learn that term? And if the student fails, then they get to repeat the term.

Mon Dieu! I know, it’s crazy, right? Actually holding students accountable for their own learning? Madness!

Obviously, then, if the same teacher or the same school is consistently way out of the norms for their setting, then we can identify problems and work toward solutions. But it’s lunacy to give tests that are all-important to the employees and politicians but are completely meaningless to the students. Y’know, the ones actually taking the tests.

And it seems to me that, if we can administer the ACT in one morning each spring, we should be able to give a term test in one day. Heck, I’d even go so far as to say that the school district itself should be responsible for designing the tests, catered to their particular population.

How do assure standards across the board? By making the test at the end of the 10th year, the one that decides whether students continue on a college-bound path or whether we guide them more toward trades and service for the last two years. Maybe it’s the ACT, maybe it’s something else — but it has to matter. Might as well steal good ideas from the people at the front of the line, right?

The point is that I think we need to re-evaluate why we give so many tests and what purpose they serve. And, if we can establish a purpose for the test, then maybe we can get a better grip on the purpose of the whole exercise of public education.

Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.