Thursday, August 25, 2011

Second guessing testing

My wife Tamara and I are expecting our second child. She is currently twenty weeks, and needless to say we are ecstatic.

We waited to share this happy news until after a very successful appointment with the doctor when she was fourteen weeks. It was during this appointment that I was fascinated by how the good doctor took my wife's blood pressure.

Here's how it went down:

Going into this appointment, Tamara and I were incredibly nervous. Without going into details, we've experienced some difficulty conceiving our second pregnancy, so this appointment was weighing heavily on both of us.

After exchanging pleasantries, the doctor took Tamara's blood pressure. As he read his instruments, he asked jokingly, "Did you run up four flights of stairs to get here?" Tamara's blood pressure was all the analytical evidence he needed to confirm our collective anxiety.

Once he applied the Doppler, we heard what we had come for -- babies heart was thumping away. Together, Tamara and I shed tears of joy -- along with the heart piercing anxiety that had us so uneasy.

As we wrapped up our appointment, the doctor stood to see us to the door, but suddenly stopped as if he had forgotten something. He reached for his blood pressure pump and said, "Let's check that blood pressure again".

After re-testing Tamara's blood pressure he smiled and said, "That's better. Now that's the one I can put in your chart." The effects of receiving the precious news of our new baby's healthy heart beat had a profound effect.


I fear too many teachers have become slaves to their grade-books. I fear too many educators and parents have been fooled into believing that testsandgrades are innately objective. Too many of us have forgetten that testsandgrades are a technology, and like all technologies they are fallible. Too many of us have forgotten that like all technologies, testsandgrades are utterly useless without a qualified human being's supervision.

I guess the doctor could have blamed my wife for her anxiety. I guess he could have held her accountable (read: punish) for her heightened blood pressure, but this hardly aligns itself with our ultimate goals for assessment. Because assessment should be about reporting accurately and honestly, it can never be used as a carrot or a stick.

Our testing tools are not a professional's opinion by proxy, rather they are tools that professionals use to develop an opinion. And yet some professionals have resigned themselves to nothing more than agents of the tests. As professionals shape their testing tools, we must remain acutely aware that those testing tools tend to shape us.

Assessment only works well when we remain willing to rethink our initial judgments and accept disconcerting evidence as an opportunity to discover truth. When we are suspicious of our assessments validity or reliability, like our doctor, we should be eager to take another look -- and yet high stakes testing allows for none of this...


  1. Last year, when I presented my grading system (the grid with objectives, student feedback and my feedback) to my principal, he was skeptical. I asked him why we needed grades and he said, "Students need to know exactly what they know and what they don't know." I asked him to ask the students those questions and he came back and said, "More of your students know what they know and are thinking about what they are learning than in grade-based classrooms."

    I wish all administrators were that open-minded.

  2. Thanks for sharing so open and honestly with us, Joe. I appreciate the connection you made between the doctor's professional use of technology and our own profession. Great post!!

  3. Congratulations Joe! That is good news for Tamara and you!
    This was a temperate piece for you, but finally, some of it conveyed what I believe.
    "Assessment only works well when we remain willing to rethink our initial judgments and accept disconcerting evidence as an opportunity to discover truth. When we are suspicious of our assessments validity or reliability, like our doctor, we should be eager to take another look "
    I choose to use testing as a tool to add to the information I have already observed. It is not a judgement. In my head, I combine all that information to find new ways to provide a better learning environment for each student.

  4. Double the value! Thank you for sharing part of your life through this post. Borrowing good practice from outside our own career arena is something that offers a multitude of lessons.


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