Sunday, March 9, 2014

What if students refused to be tested?

What if students refused to be tested?
Like a civil rights sit-in, imagine students politely watching teachers distribute tests in a math class or English class. And then they would quietly refuse to pick up a pencil. The bell would ring and the students would leave. The teacher would collect blank tests.

Then what? How would we assess what they learned? How would we know? Or would we shrug our shoulders and start typing in zeroes into an online grade book?

What if families stopped writing checks to The College Board?
Like a civil rights refusal to ride public transportation, SAT days would eventually be cancelled if no one showed up. Tractor trailers full of blank SAT tests and test preparation materials would gather dust in warehouses.

Is it really as simple as refusing to take tests? And if it were, to what end?
We used to do things differently in America. Women couldn't vote. We segregated our schools as much as we segregated our lunch counters. We used to grow our own food. We used to spend more time together as extended families.

We used to do things differently because that is just what you did.

But change is inevitable and paradigms shift by the momentum of things. And some paradigms are shattered.

Would people really be willing to encourage their children to refuse to take tests?
On a weekly basis, I encounter Tweets or articles about families opting out of standardized testing for their children:

Nothing is perfect yet. There is pushback. Some parents regret their decision. Others do not. But a movement is percolating.

What if the movement was larger?

What would a massive refusal of submitting to any test by students require of us?

  • Would we find another way and mentor children into becoming creators and explorers
  • Would we offer feedback on a child's growth and not rank him against another? 
  • Would we have to become more innovative and hands-on as teachers? 
  • Would we have to better engage in how the world is today and become more digitally literate so young people can become curators in the world that is waiting for them, and not in the world that we passed through?
  • Would we have to get up from behind our desks and engage with kids?
  • Would we have to talk to each other as professionals to share ideas that no longer come in standardized, pre-packaged, workbooks?

Would the whole system have to shift to the degree that higher ed would also have to speak to young people in order to decide if they are admitted to their college?
Initially, admittance to a school like Harvard had nothing to do with test scores. There were no test scores. If your family's financial portfolio could afford a Harvard education, off you went. Soon, professors complained about the writing weaknesses of their students. And so they created their own convenient rubric and set out to judging. The seeds of the standardized testing were planted. That rubric grew into a intelligence test for the military. And that intelligence test morphed in the SAT.

It is the way things are done.

We've seen this theme before, haven't we?

What if there was inspired change that wasn't about lining someone's pockets?

  • What if education in America was really about teaching children to develop a portfolio of skills? 
  • What if through twelve years of education, young people could show you how they have grown because they built things, reflected, owned their mistakes, and learned resiliency, accountability, and the importance of creativity, daydreaming, imagination, asking 'what if' and trying, trying, trying, without fear of the Scarlet Letter of Failure?
  • What if failure wasn't a grade and a judgment, but a natural course of life?
  • What if we taught children how to take their failures and turn them into opportunities?
  • Would what is considered good teaching and a good school district have to be rethought
  • Would colleges have to hire enormous teams of individuals to sit down with thousands of applicants to listen to them tell them about their life?
    • What they have created.
    • What they dream of becoming.
    • What obstacles they have overcome.
  • Would compulsory schooling shift to a system of mentoring young people to become builders, creators, and divergent thinkers? 
  • Would what students are good at and what students love doing finally meet?
Does standardized testing or testing in general really contribute to the problems I imply, or do they interfere with any of my (admittedly) idealized visions of education?

If you support smashing the factory-based, assembly-line paradigm of public education and strive to create a system that encourages divergent thinkers, we would say yes and our kids would hand back blank tests.

Because if no one took them, then what?


  1. Can you imagine what they would accomplish.

  2. Loved this post. Very thought provoking!

  3. This post makes me wish for a total change of testing, but how and when can that happen? I dream of a day where we only use formative assessments to help children realize their potential.

  4. Good questions. I was just talking to a friend last week about colleges that do not require standardized test scores. Now if only students in my state could truly "opt out" and still be eligible for graduation.

  5. And what if we weren't so egocentric as a country, and looked to other models to pick and choose what is working there? Great post!