Who is telling our story? Test Scores?

The current fascination with high stakes testing makes me think about a poem by Rumi called Two Kinds of Intelligence. In this poem, Rumi speaks of two intelligences: the one that measures and rewards with the carrots and sticks model and the other that is already completed and preserved inside all of us. It is the second kind of intelligence, the non-cognitive one, that he describes so eloquently as essential for us and is recently been researched, written and spoken about here, here and here. It is this intelligence that is a far better determinant for how we succeed in the “game of life” and in my opinion, far more rewarding than the first intelligence.  

Yet, is this the intelligence we are helping to foster, grow and develop in our schools today? Or, are the misguided policies shaped by the misinformation by so many in the ed reform movement making teaching the non-cognitive skills irrelevant to a generation of students who need them? I worry that too many in the ed reform movement have hijacked the narrative about what learning should be and look like for our students. Their vision is one of high stakes testing and more accountability measures. Unfortunately, their story is the one being told too much. Here’s another point of view to remind us of why those in the ed reform movement should rethink their vision and why we, as educators, need to tell our stories.

Back when I first started teaching in the early 2000’s, I was looking for some goal to measure my student’s proficiency in Japanese other than the assessments I prepared and gave my students.  Being a Japanese teacher and knowing the language, I was well aware of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) most Japanese language learners took to measure the written, listening, and reading skills they have mastered in Japanese.  Knowing this, I decided to find time within the year to show them the test, prepare them and allow them to take it.

One student, Adam, never quite measured up to the other students taking the test.  He struggled with it despite all efforts I put into guiding and teaching him what he needed more of to improve his proficiency.  Adam did not lack the motivation nor volition to do better.  He loved the language, the culture, was extremely curious and enjoyed my class.  Yet, none of these factors seemed to make a difference in his ability to perform well on the JLPT.

Today if this test were to be the determinant of Adam’s learning or entrance into a school, where would Adam be?  It’s a good thing that it was not that way for Adam because, today, Adam is a fluent speaker of Japanese. When he graduated high school, he went to college and spent a year abroad in Japan.  After graduation, he found himself back in Japan teaching English while continuing his passion to learn more of the language and culture. Today he is engaged to a Japanese woman who doesn’t speak English, he works for a Japanese school system and drums in a Japanese rock band.

I share Adam’s story because it reminds me that if we continue to allow a test to be the determinant of one’s success, I do believe we are stifling that person’s potential to live and learn. I, like Adam, was never one of the better students in my Japanese classes at Bucknell, but my love and desire to learn, despite grades and scores that were below some in my class, never stood in my way of learning Japanese. Could Adam exist today in this world of high stakes testing?  Of course.  But the larger question and perhaps more important question is how many Adams today are having their learning stifled by a system that uses high stakes testing to demonstrate learning? How many more Adam’s would exist if we let the passion, grit, and curiosity to learn guide students as opposed to a test score?

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