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Thompson: Anya Kamenentz's 4 Alternatives To "Test and Punish"

Anya Kamenetz’s The Test is an awesome analysis of how “the test obsession is making public schools … into unhappy places.” But Kamenetz’s great work doesn't stop there.  In the second part of the book, she presents alternative approaches to high-stakes testing:
Team Robot tests conventional subjects (math, reading, writing) in unconventional ways (invisible, integrated, electronic).
Team Monkey tests unconventional qualities (mindset, grit) in conventional ways (multiple –choice surveys).
Team Butterfly, which Kamenetz would use as the basis for a new system, integrates learning with assessment and covers twenty-first-century skills without quantifying the outcomes in a way that’s familiar or easily comparable …
Team Unicorn, which is still emerging, relies heavily on video games. She offers an intriguing distinction between Team Unicorn and Team Robot: “the former understands the limitations of what they are doing.” (Sign me up for the more adventurous approach, whose metrics also should be the most incompatible with stakes being assessed.)

The Test concludes with four strategies for dealing with tests.

While I have some quibbles over the way that Kamenetz accepts the premise of metrics-driven reformers, those who believe that “if you don’t start measuring something, you don’t start valuing it,” mostly I would have liked to see an additional chapter. As the final chapter concentrates on helping parents think through the full range of their options for managing testing within their own families, she starts to communicate disproportionately with upper middle class and upper class Gen X and Gen Y parents. I would like a comparable, explicit set of guidelines for working and lower class children.

The fundamental problem with attaching stakes to metrics is that it creates a destructive culture. We could create a new generation of accountability metrics based on Kamenetz’s advice that we should focus on “ability,” not “accounting.” But, if and when a culture of competition intrudes into even the best assessments, they will also be perverted. 
Moreover, as she explains, “test-based accountability is a motor built on mistrust and anxiety that creates more mistrust and anxiety in its wake.” It is born of mistrust of teachers and students. But, this breakdown of hope and confidence is a legacy of the volatility and flimsy work arrangements of the contemporary economy, prompting the uncertainty that undermines trusting relationships. “There are real economic and social causes for the ratcheting up of anxiety and mistrust. Economic inequality in America is at levels not seen since the 1920s.”
So, we must empower children who are coming of age in a culture where competition and inequity can undermine their most uplifting values and energy.  If a student has a personality which welcomes data for keeping score and winning, those values should be honored, as adults nurture a sense of ethics for managing their kids’ competitive impulses. If a student feels more comfortable opting out of testing, that should also be respected.
Students should be taught smart and ethical strategies for taking and for thinking about the tests that they choose to take. If a student becomes uncomfortable with a test, or feels that it is hurting his or her friends, that student should know that he or she is free to bubble-in “As” or “monkey wrench” it in whatever way is appropriate.
Just as a child should be taught the dangers of drinking and driving, unprotected sex, or misuse of social media, students should be taught all sides of the testing issue. Just as a child should be empowered to take action when feeling uncomfortable in social or social media situations, they should be taught the dangers of being tracked and stigmatized by school data that ends up in the Internet “Cloud.”    
Just as black parents must have “the Talk” with their teens about “Justice while Black,” they must also warn children of color to not settle for a second class education focusing on multi-guess questions or, even, more advanced metrics that might grade their character, “grit,” or frames of mind.
In other words, schools should get back to preparing children for life in a complex modern society. Tests provide teachable moments for helping students flourish in, as well as resist, realities that do not have simple right or wrong answers.-JT(@drjohnthompson)   

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