A, B, C or none of the above – Head Susan Diller Talks about Testing

The following article appeared in the Worcester Telegram on Friday, May 17, 2013.

Spring arrives and students across Massachusetts are taking the MCAS. From third grade on up, we ask our children to fill in bubbles and to show us what they know. We will be judging those results as truths. Truths we believe tell us something essential about our children’s learning, abilities, proficiencies, and aptitudes; truths we believe only a standardized test can reveal. Here is what I know about truth and testing.

I was 12 and taking one of those all-day, fill-in-the-bubble tests: A, B, C or None of the Above. We plodded through; section after section, each 20 or 30 minutes, with five-minute warnings, and the drone of “do not turn the page until you are told to do so.”

I remember two sections vividly, and this is 38 years ago. The first was a paper-folding test. Presented with a 2-D shape, we were to fold the flat shape in our minds into its 3-D object, using dash marks and solid lines for guides. I made cubes and cylinders, pyramids and un-namable shapes. I thought that section was somewhat fun. A, B, C or None of the Above came fairly easily.

Next came spelling. Word after word, we had to determine if the word was spelled correctly or incorrectly. If wrong, we had to choose the bubble next to the correctly spelled version. Each new word made me wish for folding cubes of any size or shape. Words swam, blurred. They suddenly all seemed right, or all seemed wrong. A, B, C or None of the Above became a guessing game.

A few weeks later, we got the results back of what I can only assume now were some sort of aptitude tests. We were good kids in a good public junior high school. We were excited about our futures and tests like this one were part of our normal educational experience. Our eyes were bright and our expressions were upbeat. What truths would these tests reveal?

As we received our results, bar graphs of ability, the room grew quiet. The mind-folding section? — oh, I shined, a blue bar nearly to the top of the page, how wonderful! The spelling? I can still see my hand tracing the tiny portion of a red bar that barely reached above the base. I am no writer I thought, equating spelling with writing. I hid the offending blip on the page with my outspread hand.

Kids’ lights, when it comes to the learning that really matters, are extinguished in situations like this all the time. Kids give up. Parents get overwhelmed. Testing prep companies soar.

I feel compelled to report what learning can be like when the product is not a bar graph, implied or literal.

As the head of a small private school, I have seen students transformed from dull-eyed, chin-down, deeply frustrated souls into teachers themselves, bright-eyed and electric. I have seen students who hated dictionaries, as much as you can hate something that is utterly irrelevant, literally beg their families to play dictionary games with them.

Students who dread math clamor for math games over vacation. I have seen students take their weak suit and turn it into their strong suit. I have students who look forward to school. Yes, children who skip into school in the mornings, and who know that they are in a safe place to make mistakes and to learn.

Show me a standardized test that measures energy, passion, enthusiasm, love of learning, creativity, perseverance, choice, creative thinking, problem solving, flexible thinking, listening and respect, and I’ll agree that we could offer that test.

Until then, I’ll stick with schools that know and respect each learner and the teacher who would have seen my face, bent down, peeled my hand off that bar graph, looked me in the eye and said, “You are a really good writer, and one day there will be this amazing tool called spellcheck!”

I’ll take that over any fill-in-the-bubble test, and you should too.

Susan Diller is headmaster of Touchstone Community School in Grafton. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College. She also received an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, all thanks to spellcheck.