As a preschool teacher, I’ve never been involved in testing my students, although I’m constantly observing and evaluating skills and progress. I do have a long check list of social, cognitive, expressive and motor “objectives” (developed by Tom Drummond of Descriptive Cue Sequence fame) that I use when a parent requests a written evaluation of their child, but this can’t be considered “testing” in the sense I’m discussing here because the child has no idea he’s doing anything other than the kinds of things he normally does at school. Mostly, I’m just collecting data to make sure I’m on track as a teacher.
As a student who had highly developed test-taking skills and an eye on the prize (i.e., good grades) my academic life mostly took the form of cramming, testing, then blissfully forgetting. I’m sure some of the information stuck in there somewhere, but it’s an all too familiar pattern designed to reward those of us with the ability to quickly store tons of information in our short term memories. I guess it’s a form of learning, and I’m not exactly disappointed with the education I received in school, but wonder what’s lost when we emphasize test scores and grades to the extent we do.
And we continue to up the ante, especially when it comes to standardized testing. In 1965, the federal government, concerned we were falling behind the Soviets, mandated standardized testing in public schools. The 2001 “No Child Left Behind” act tied school funding to these tests, making it a virtual life-or-death matter for already struggling school districts. Public school administrators have had no choice but to pressure teachers to “teach to the test,” compelling them in many cases to set aside what they know is best for their students in favor of what is best for the financial well-being of the school. This might be a good model for the perpetuation of the institution, but deeply flawed when it comes to education, as almost any teacher will tell you.
Although evidence of standardized testing can be found as early as China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), it didn’t become a part of the Western tradition until the 20th century and the advent of the I.Q. test which purports to measure innate intelligence. The underlying theory behind these tests is that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and that, in turn, largely determines how successful we will be in life. In the late 1950’s an educator in Michigan named David Welkart had the radical idea of improving the academic performance of minority students by essentially inventing preschool as we know it today. You can read the full story here, but the bottomline was that the Perry School Project experiment boosted I.Q. scores dramatically, leading directly to the federal preschool program called Head Start in 1965.
An interesting thing happened, however. These initial I.Q. gains in the Perry School study faded after only a couple years, a result that was later verified by Head Start. While critics of Head Start used this to attack the program as a failure, the Perry School research continued. While the intelligence of students who had attended preschool, as measured by the standardized I.Q. test, was no longer greater than that of their non-preschool peers, they continued to show greater academic achievement, were less likely to be assigned to special education classes, and showed fewer behavioral problems. This phenomenon was tracked through high school, with those who had attended preschool not being “smarter” than their peers, but continuing to do better in school by every measure. Now in their 40’s the test subjects are more likely to be employed, make more money, have healthier relationships, be involved in their own kid’s lives, and are less likely to be involved in crime. All of this without any measurable I.Q. advantage; the only identifiable difference between these individuals and the control group being two years of preschool.
In other words, whatever was being measured by these standardized tests, it didn’t seem to have any bearing on achievement.
The assumption at the heart of a lot of economic theory is that measured intelligence is the key to everything. But with the Perry Preschool children, something else made the difference. It was not IQ. (Nobel Prize laurete economist James) Heckman is now working with psychologists to try to understand how the preschool may have affected the development of what he calls "non-cognitive" skills, things like motivation, sociability and the ability to work with others.
These are critical skills that help people succeed at school, at work - and in life.
Every teacher, in her heart of hearts, already knows this. These are the skills we're here to teach. And these are skills that will never be measured by a standardized test.
(I didn’t intend for this subject to stretch out over 3 days, but I’m having fun writing about it. Tune in tomorrow for what I hope will be the final post on the topic.)