The Failure of Testing in Education–The Challenge of Creating Learners, not the Learned

When I was still young and a college student at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, I had several professors that believed the American university was going downhill. They felt that democratization of higher education, with its demand that students succeed, was leading to lower standards that would eventually hurt the country. I was reading Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman who was one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest philosophers, and I ran across a sentence that made me remember my old professors. Hoffer said that during times of great change, learners were superior to those who were learned because the learned knew about the world as it was, not the world as it was changing.

At the time, of course, the United States still had the best education system in the world. That has changed as the country has changed, and the result is that Finland has the best education system in the world, and the United States has an education system that ranks in the middle of the pack among industrialized nations, falling behind even some countries struggling to become part of the industrialized world. But I do not believe my old professors, stuck in their sense of what learning was important during their lifetimes, were right. Standards are not immutable. They change as the world changes, and boy, is the world changing. What we think is important at this moment in time may be as permanent as the position of a hummingbird’s wings as it sips from a flower’s nectar.

As our education ranking on the college and university level and K-12 levels falls, politicians and those stuck in the myopic past are clamoring for more and more testing for students. At the college and university level the key word is assessment! Prove that students are learning what you believe they are learning. Define the product, or outcome, of your teaching so specifically that you can measure it.

In the twilight of my educational career I am currently the Dean of Instruction at Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation. The Aspen Institute recently named Navajo Tech one of the 120 best community colleges in the United States. The truth is that we have worked really, really hard to make a tribally controlled institution of higher learning one of the best colleges in the United States, and I believe we have succeeded. The Aspen Institute’s ranking confirms what I believe.

What I do not believe is that either testing, the definition of outcomes, or assessment has had much to do with Navajo Tech’s success. I do not believe the current concentration on testing and assessment helps improve education or even measures how successful or unsuccessful the education system is doing. I lead the charge to do the assessment expected at Navajo Tech. Fighting city hall and the political class on educational issues is not the way to garner funds necessary to achieve educational success for students. Navajo Tech’s success has had more to do with passionate teachers, a good educational design, students from desperately poor communities who desperately want to succeed, and dedication by the President and the rest of the college to build a success that will serve the Navajo Nation far into the future.

Assessment is not, as an exercise, totally useless. In fact it has limited uses if we understand that those uses are limited. If outcomes are drafted by a new faculty member or teacher, that faculty member is forced to think about what they are trying to teach. Sometimes an old faculty member is shaken out of a passionate belief in the lecture notes they developed twenty or more years ago. That thinking, or shaking, process has value. The problem, however, comes when the assessment process is considered key to education. When thinking about what you are trying to teach becomes ossified into knowledge that is what you are teaching, then learning as a process, not an end, is degraded. Part of what is happening to education in this era is that learning is all about the knowledge being tested rather than about the dynamism that drives individual students toward achievement and success.

Another thing Eric Hoffer once said is that if you order a bunch of men to dig a ditch, they will probably get the ditch dug, but will grumble through the work with all deliberate speed. If you take that same group of men and convince them that they are part of turning a desert into a garden and ask them to dig a ditch, that ditch will not only get dug at record speed, but it will also be one of the finest ditches in the world. The garden will be created, and the desert will bloom.

If you want to build a successful society, make that society about something important to those living in that society. If the society’s major goal is to achieve tax cuts or to protect the social network, there is no oomph in that, no dream. If you teach a student to create a new world, the proverbial “citie on a hill,” however that world is defined, and convince them that bringing that world into existence requires the personal sacrifice inherent in any effort to learn, then they will make that sacrifice and learn. They will choose to play their part in the creation of a garden in the desert. That is part of the secret of Navajo Tech. The students are learning in order to better themselves, their family, their clans, and the Navajo Nation.

When Hoffer said that during times of change learners are superior to the learned, he did not have a testing regime in mind. He was saying something far different. If we want to understand the educational process in a world changing at a rate difficult for any of us to understand, we first have to understand the motivation that drives humans toward accomplishment: Learning, not knowledge, and especially not knowledge confirmed by testing when testing becomes the measure of learning.

Hoffer was intimating that knowledge is not what is important in and of itself. Knowledge, known or still to be discovered, can be learned. What is important are values, attributes, knowledge, and skills that create learners and a learning, not a learned, class. What you know that can be uncovered by a test or an assessment exercise is not as important as your ability to absorb and react to the change in knowledge, skills, attributes, and values around you as the world changes. The world belongs to learners, not simply to the educated, or, for that matter, to the wealthy or political classes–although the evidence they have in their gated communities might lead them to beg to differ.

If this country wants to succeed at education, and it had better want to succeed at education, it needs to start thinking more about learning than about what a test or an assessment process measures–more about human dreams and aspirations as believed in by students than about facts and knowledge that politicians, and even educators, think are important.

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