The American education public school system is currently down the rabbit-hole when it comes to testing. What if all the money currently being diverted to corporate testing companies and corporate assessment gurus was instead being spent on providing materials that helped students learn? What if the decision-makers who design and implement assessment overkill could see that their efforts were counter-productive, causing the students who can least afford it to lose ground in their learning? What if students and teachers were evaluated by multiple meaningful measures rather than by single stand-alone tests that boil down complexity and nuance to a single number? These questions and many others are addressed in Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bottom Tempel, an important collection of more than 50 essays dealing with various aspects of the assessment fever currently afflicting our schools.
Although these pieces offer plenty of articulate criticism of the testing frenzy, many of the most useful contributions provide alternative ways of thinking about assessing students, evaluating teachers, and conducting authentic professional development. Of particular interest to English teachers are two pieces by Linda Christensen appearing toward the end of Pencils Down, one focused on student-generated writing assessments and one dealing with professional development opportunities conducted by the Portland Writing Project. Although these two articles specifically focus on writing instruction, most of the other pieces focus more generally on K-12 instruction. Still, I found myself thinking about how to apply their ideas to English/Language Arts classrooms, and I came away with several ideas worth exploring.
A criticism of this collection is that it goes to the same well a few too many times. For example, several of the pieces deal with the troubled Milwaukee school system. Is Milwaukee a microcosm of the entire nation? If so, then the concentration is probably forgivable.
I’ll end here with my favorite metaphor in Pencils Down from the late education professor Asa Hilliard:
Usually, when people put so much emphasis on standards as a school reform tool, it means that they want to look like they’re performing a reform effort, but they’re actually moonwalking. They look like they’re going forward, but they’re going backward.