We do not test, we trust

A fellow blogger wrote in the aftermath of the London riots about the need to opening our eyes to systemic injustice. Doug Belshaw wrote about the school system that kicks out up to twenty percent of its students out of school functionally illiterate, innumerate and socially dysfunctional. Things can change and it does not have to cost billions (which no society today has anyway) – and the change is not about wishing back the “good old days”, that were not that good for real. Here’s what I wrote to Doug:

As a foreigner, coming from one of those “cuddly” Scandinavian social democracies, I probably have a grossly simplified outside –  in – view, but looking down from my tree I do not see the current educational system helping this society overcome the challenges of the future. This socially divisive and test driven system leaves some youngsters squinting after disappearing tail lights in the academic sense and it leaves them feeling bad about themselves emotionally. In a situation like that it is easy to make a career out of being bad – which provides at least one thing they can be good at. As we all know small problems are cheaper to fix than the big ones. This is why (and I remind you: coming from a small nation my understanding of the history and complexities of this society is rather limited) I hold the view that testing students and assessing teachers continuously for the purpose of ensuring quality (what is quality – actually?) and for the purpose of climbing in the league tables is stressful, divisive, time consuming, expensive and in some cases devastating for the individuals, the school and ultimately the system. And it leads to testing for the sake of testing – it does not necessarily improve learning.

Where I come from we trust, we do not test. The few (voluntary) tests in different subjects are there mostly for teachers to adjust the methods, improve the efficiency of their own work when they have a chance to compare the test results (of a test written by an outside entity) of their students with others. My school organizes a yearly (or bi-annual) national test in some subjects that is written by the professional organization of the subjects’ teachers. Organizing these tests is voluntary for schools and submitting the results is also voluntary. We have never submitted the results back to the organizer because we see that it does not ad value. There is value for the students in taking a standardized, bigger test – as a practise for coping with a test situation and for taking “official” tests in the future, and of course getting a result from the test. Most importantly, however, the test serves the teacher who can measure his/her own performance against a standard ( a test written by an outsider). The teacher can then improve and adjust his /her methods and approach. Competition for a better place in some listing and publishing test results does not help learning, it will only make the teacher focus on the test and teach with the test in mind. That is why we do not have league tables, nor do we pressure teachers or students into a mould.

Since predicting the future has always been difficult and is almost impossible today we have to be careful with the perceived future value of the “knowledge” we deliver. However, there are a couple of areas where the school cannot go wrong: Learning how to learn (n.b. I did not mention “teaching”) and increasing the students’ self esteem (i.e. image of themselves in relation to others, knowing that they are respected and loved as they are) and self knowledge (i.e knowing their own strengths and having a realistic picture of themselves and the world) and finally learning to take responsibility of one’s own life. Responsibility is like putting money in the bank (well… is that ever a poor analogy these days…..), it is an investment in the future while irresponsibility is like a loan – something to pay back later in life.

Easier said than done, but it can be done. Multi-professional approach, prevention, early intervention and flexible support mechanisms and individual learning paths instead of pressing everyone through the same meat grinder, will be cheaper in the long run and is better for the society on the whole. It does not “save” everyone, but it will keep many from falling through the cracks.

And I know I probably speak against better understanding and my view is utterly simplified – but I feel there should be an attempt to change the system. It seems I am becoming a part of the ever increasing chorus of barking dogs and hoping that they will eventually bite – and get noticed.  “Everyone said it could not be done – until someone did it”

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