The Chicago Tribune reported this morning that test scores in Chicago Public Schools soared using this language:
Illinois elementary school pupils passed the newly revamped state achievement exams at record rates last year, but critics suggest it was more the result of changes to the tests than real progress by pupils.
Overall, children passed 77 percent of all math, reading and science exams they took in 2006, compared with 69 percent the year before, according to a Tribune analysis of test data.
So what could possibly be wrong with this? Aside from the fact that we are comparing apples to oranges because of the revision of the exams themselves, there is the overarching issue of what the test scores represent.
Test scores generalize the outcomes of one type of learning providing “a product deprived of its substance.” (Žižek, 2003, p. 96) Test scores present a virtual reality, something like coffee without caffeine; a reality that is experienced as meaningful without being so. By virtualizing assessment data as a simulacrum of the actual acquisition of knowledge we engage in a morbid game that privileges legalistic notions of learning in lieu of developing critically responsible learners. Žižek argues that this approach leads to a kind of learning without learning.
Who is harmed by the idea of learning without learning? I suggest that we all are harmed in the end. By producing a generation of test savvy students we overlook the ethical responsibilities attached to learning to think, to stand on one’s own two feet, to weigh evidence, to make decisions that are appropriate. Test savvy students approach learning as a Cliff’s Notes worldview. Show me what I need to know to get by, to pass the test, and I’ll be just fine.
I fear that the only conclusion one can draw from the American frenzy to assess knowledge by an obsessive reliance on test score data is a negative one. When everything can be reduced to a single number the only meaningful result is what Arendt (1963) the banality of evil. The submission of reality for virtuality, of learning for a single number as if that single number represents some higher goal is obscene.
Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil New York: The Viking Press.
Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.