The Blog

As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Tests Are Tools and Must Be Used As Tools

After years in the public school system as a teacher at elementary and college level, as an administrator, as a school psychologist but mainly as the mother of three sons who successfully negotiated the public school system…I learned a great deal and hope to share some of my insights.

I believe that most adults understand and have learned how to communicate with and deal with the health care system better than they understand the school system.  They know what questions to ask the doctor.  If he prescribes a medicine they know to ask the side effects.  They might even get out a medical book and learn about the disease or at least what the symptoms mean.  They might even ask for a second opinion.  They need to be helped to do the same with the school system.  Our schools have a great deal to offer if parents know how to use them well.

“What’s It All About Alfie?” perhaps should be the first question parents ask the school system.

What is the purpose of school?  Some would answer:  To produce responsible citizens. To produce thinkers.  To produce life-long learners. To protect the dreams of children.  To develop all aspects of the child.  To teach problem solving techniques. To baby-sit children and keep them off the street. To produce workers. To help children pass standardized tests.

Somewhere along the line, we have lost the sense that schooling and learning is good in itself and should be an ongoing, joyful, spontaneous, creative experience.  Sometimes all of our tests and rules and regulations tend to make it a painful and unproductive experience.

As one kindergartner said to me:  “Okay I did what you wanted me to do.  I learned to read.  Now can I go home?”  She probably will never open another book..but that is another topic..the use and misuse of kindergarten programs.

School should be helping our children become life-long learners and creative thinkers, not just good test-takers who can fill in the blanks with one correct answer.  We probably cannot control whether our children will become life-long learners since that is a personal decision.  We can be careful, however, and take appropriate steps to prevent them from becoming permanently conditioned against learning.

Schools need to accent intellectual goals over academic goals.  Academic goals are concerned with achievement and getting good grades.  Intellectual goals are concerned with learning and being an inquirer.  One way to emphasize the difference is to say to your child when he comes home from school:  “Did you ask any questions today?” rather than, “Did you get an A on the test today?”

Tests are neutral tools.  How these tools are used is what makes the difference in whether they are useful or damaging to the educational process.  Tests are helpful to both teachers, students and administrators to determine if, in fact, the program is working and the students are learning.  With this knowledge the teacher can readjust the program to fit the students’ needs and the student knows how they are doing.

Standarized tests, however, are usually given for other reasons.  These tests are stardardized on groups of students and are useful and were meant to compare groups, not individual students.  When used correctly, the results help school systems to evaluate their programs.

Each school system is unique and should have unique goals.  Results from achievement tests helps schools to determine, if, in fact, they are achieving those goals.  If the test scores in math at the second grade, for example, indicate that the students are not doing well, then the faculty should look at their program and take appropriate steps to improve it.

If the school, on the basis of group end-of-the-year achievement tests, tells you that your child’s performance is deficient in some way, you should ask a number of questions, such as, what further testing will be done to pinpoint the problem, what program does the school plan for your child in order to help him learn better and possibly improve his scores.  In other words, insist that the test scores be used as tools for planning your child’s program and not merely as a statement that he is deficient in some way.



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