Changing The Language From Anti-Testing To Pro-Whole Child

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose9 Comments

I like getting into discussions with people who like saying “Jose, why are you against testing?”

Let me lay out the argument and the reason why, instead of referring to myself as anti-testing, I’m calling myself pro-whole-child.

The argument is that testing isn’t bad. We should have experts who look at the lay of the education land, help set standards for what children ought to learn at every grade, and then help develop assessments that help us get a glimpse as to whether students learned that material. Testing seems more stable, and less prone to error since these guys spend their working hours on developing precise problems and test them on children and adults to make certain that the problems absolutely mean to assess what they mean to assess. Plus, having these common assessments between grade levels could make for interesting longitudinal studies and provide critical feedback for teachers, parents, and students about student and teacher performance.

I hope I got that right because, as it turns out, I think there’s something inherently wrong with this.

To a certain extent, I do agree with having a viable, thorough curriculum from K-12 that expands on content knowledge, helps students question, and goes beyond teaching students how to multiply in high school. Often, it’s the students in the lower-income brackets that get tossed into the least demanding classes with the teacher who likes to say, “Well, at least they’ll learn something!” I have a thing for high expectations, and I can’t shake it no matter what others say either. Plus, in my classroom, I give exams rather often. Outsourcing this task to the experts seems like a good idea because it’s less work for me on many levels.

Yet, that’s just not how this plays out currently. In fact, the current status quo strips away any real teacher expertise and potential for creating curricular equity. For one, students, educators, and parents at this juncture don’t worry about learning the standards; they worry about passing the test. The ramifications for passing the test include loss of funding, an overabundance of visitors who critique more than help, and eventually a process for shutdown that often dismisses the students who go to the school. Schools in these situations become less like cultural centers and more like test factories, churning out kids who can pass tests but can’t imagine or create without being given the answer outright.

Also, people who advocate for the Common Core State Standards miss the bigger picture that people on the ground don’t: The CCSS came as a package deal with the new teacher evaluations, higher stakes testing, and austerity measures including mass school closings. Often, it seems like the leaders are talking out of both sides of their mouths when they say they want to improve education but need to defund our schools most in need of a demanding curriculum, if that’s the argument. It makes no sense for us to have high expectations of our students when we don’t have high expectations for our school system, especially when it comes to funding.

Lastly, and most importantly, “testing” isn’t the same as assessment. We have plenty of things we can assess and test, of course. The way we talk about testing, however, is mostly a math and English-language arts third through eighth grade game. I don’t want that. I prefer we emphasize math, ELA, science, social studies, arts, (daily) physical education, and anything else that would give our students an experience that makes them better for having done it. In other words, I want more than what they’re getting now.

I prefer people don’t refer to me or anyone else who thinks like me about these things as “anti-testing.” I’m not anti-testing. I’m pro-whole-child-assessment. We don’t have a fancier name for this, but it’s more appropriate than the drivel attached to the “anti-testing” label.

I want less tests and better assessments. There. And I wear the “pro whole child” label proudly.


Comments 9

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  4. There appears to be a big discussion everywhere about how to teach STEM better. That is fine because teaching is important. But, why is there not more discussion about how people, children include, learn. In recent years there have been breakthrough advances in neuroscience and psychology that have taught us a great deal about how the human brain learns. So, why is there not more conversation about how to better help young people learn.

    I have taught life science and chemistry in college classrooms and I really think that teaching science and teaching students how to learn science are two different things.

  5. Is being pro whole child like being pro whole foods? If so count me out. Count me in on being anti-standardized testing AND anti-educational standards AND anti-grading of students. Those come part and parcel with being “pro-whole child”. I have to “assign” grades if I want to keep teaching, however, I let the whole students know that the grading of students is 100% USDA Prime Bovine Excrement-for all you non-rural readers that translates into bullshit.

    So, Jose, I invite you on my Quixotic Quest to rid the world of these pernicious, whole child harming educational malpractices by spreading the word of the most anti-educational standards, anti-standardized testing and anti-“grading” of the students, Noel Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: See below for a brief summary, however it’s best to read the whole tome as my summary is like reading the Cliff Notes to a major novel.

    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

    1. A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions.

    2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

    In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

    5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. As a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms shit in-shit out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it measures “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

  6. By the way, Jose, I appreciate your way of thinking and expressing those thoughts. I’ll have to get over here to this side of cyber space more often. You’ve been fairly warned, eh!

    1. Post

      Um, thanks, I think. Duane, I’m all for the curses as you can tell from my most recent review of Diane Ravitch’s book, but I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn from your last comment. Especially since your first four sentences are almost exactly what I was saying. I do invite you, however, to post with your thoughts and thanks again.

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