Spooner(ism) on Standardized Testing

Dr. Marc Spooner must be doing something right. He’s been a multiple winner of the Prairie Dog’s Best of Regina Poll for Best U of R Professor, including the 2013 poll. When students were asked why they thought Dr. Spooner was chosen for this award, one student commented, “Marc always tells it straight to you even if it isn’t what you want to hear. It pushes you to work harder, think deeper, and become a better student, learner, and person.

The readers of Prairie Dog also recognized Marc as the 2013 recipient of the Best Citizen Activist Award. This isn’t a big surprise considering that Marc also “tells it straight” when it comes to systemic social issues such as poverty and homelessness. Most recently, however, Marc’s voice has been raised against standardized testing. He views the issues of poverty and achievement as directly linked. Marc says, “Poverty is the biggest learning disability. Testing scores are not telling us anything. If you want to know something about achievement, tell me where the students live, and I can tell you, as Alfie Kohn says, ‘with chilling accuracy,’ how well they are achieving.”

Marc views education as liberation, though he recognizes the existing tension between indoctrination and liberation. He asks, “What are the telling signs of a democratic classroom? Creative engagement, discussion of significant current events, and political or democratic engagement.” These three aspects are necessary for students not only to function in the world, but also to envision and build a better world. And it is these three aspects that are omitted when the focus becomes standardized testing. “We have to be careful in what we are trying to achieve when education is reduced to test scores, a method all too popular in dictatorships.”

The push for standardized testing is perplexing to Marc, given that “even the architect of standardized testing, Dr. Diane Ravitch, is now one of the biggest opponents of it.” Searching for a metaphor to shed light on this backward movement towards standardized testing, Marc says, “It’s like instead of building cell phone towers, we are building land lines. Or, if you take standardized tests in September and call this formative assessment, it is like driving a rear-wheel drive in reverse and calling it front-wheel drive. It’s still a rear-wheel drive car!” Further, standardized testing diverts funds from the classroom, moving funds from the public to the private sector, to publishing companies who write and print tests, and to computer companies who administer results. And, the results that are published provide a distorted view of teaching and learning and greatly affect morale.

Marc continues, “It’s not like we don’t have great models to follow: Look at Finland, a social democracy, which has narrowed the gap of inequality. They have a strong middle class (something that is eroding in our society). Their teachers have autonomy, professionalism, and a master’s degree. They don’t have standardized curriculum; schools themselves determine what they will teach.” Yet, Finland is regularly in the top five on every measure on the PISA scores. “That’s the kind of society I want to live in,” Marc says, “one that minimizes inequity and allows teachers to be professionals and students to take up all the benefits of a democracy.”

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