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Commentary: Evaluating Your School

By Keith Frome

Buffalo, NY – My teaching colleagues in public school often are, in private conversation, quite critical of the New York State 4th and 8th grade assessment tests. They complain that staking a school's reputation on the results of a battery of tests forces the entire institution to concentrate its resources on these assessments at the expense of other subjects and other ways of learning. What are the implications of this assertion? Do such tests force educators to focus on what is important, or do they obstruct schools from developing life-long learners who love to grow and stretch their skills?

The motivation behind the testing of young students for basic skills in math, science and English language arts is, in all fairness, responsible on the part of policy makers. Proponents of testing argue either that schools are public investments or instruments for social justice or both. The investment thesis contends that taxpayers spend money on public education in order to gain a product, that is, literate individuals with basic skills in math and science who can become productive citizens and contributors to the workforce. Standardized tests are merely an evaluation instrument used to determine the effectiveness of any school in meeting its most basic goal.

Another pro-testing philosophy argues that education is the great equalizer in American society. In order for our citizens to enjoy true equality of opportunity, they all must be given a quality education in order to compete fairly. Standardized testing helps us save students from poor schools by revealing their lack of achievement.

Notice that each of these positions makes an assumption about the function of public education in society. Schooling has been charged at different times and by different leaders in the history of education with three basic aims. Some thinkers believe that schools exist to socialize students to perform certain functions in our society. Others see school systems as a capitalistic tool to maintain the status quo by training children to be consumers and unreflective, rule-abiding workers. These theorists believe teachers should counteract this by teaching children to think independently and critically.

Last, some thinkers believe that American schools should be dedicated to regenerating our democracy by producing a group of citizens who can work together harmoniously and at the same time be free to explore their passions and interests.

These three aims, and a variety of versions of them, have conflicted with each other in the history of American curricula and continue to add controversy to the validity of standardized testing today. If you think that schools exist to prepare students for college, then some form of testing does seem appropriate. If you think that schools are complex institutions that prepare divergent learners for different kinds of fulfilling lives, then standardized tests will never adequately reflect this reality. If you believe that schools are laboratories for democracy, you will probably have little tolerance for testing as the only appropriate evaluation. And, certainly, if you believe schools should liberate students from the shackles of societal determinism, you will not only abhor testing, but see those tests as one of those very shackles.

I believe that the kind of evaluation a school uses to determine its effectiveness will also determine its culture, no matter what it may say in its mission statement. If a school uses a battery of standardized tests to assess its success, then its work will necessarily be geared toward those tests.

Testing, though, can be effective an educational tool if it is used as the beginning point not the end point of the learning process. When we analyze test results in order to understand how our children understand their world and how they solve or fail to solve problems, tests become a window into the child's mind as both a storage facility and a type of computer. Testing can help us uncover just what is and is not in a child's knowledge bank and how she uses what knowledge she has to think and to deliberate. Once we understand this, the lesson can truly begin.

Listener-Commentator Keith Frome is Headmaster of Elmwood Franklin School in Buffalo.