Some blog post titles just demand your attention. Yesterday, my attention was grabbed by this one: "Tests are inhuman-- and that is what so good about them." Yes, there's an 's missing from that title, but there's a lot more than that missing from the post itself.
The writer is arguing for the value of the impartial, unbiased test. And part of her argument is solid. Teaching is most often done by human beings, and human beings are biased. Therefor it will come as no surprise that A) teachers have biases and B) if they're not careful, teachers will let those biases bleed over into their evaluation of students. This is inarguably true.
It may seem, the writer says, that teacher evaluation is nicer, more humane, but in fact the intrusion of bias can make teacher evaluation the most unkind at all, denying some students credit for their achievements and being inherently unfair. Also true.
If you want fairness, progress, equality and reliability, then human judgment may not be the best method.
What other judgment is there?
Okay. You might say Judgment of God, but I believe there's a special day set for that judgment, and it's coming later. I don't think it's a significant factor in, say, ninth grade algebra.
This is what I don't get about some test devotees-- this belief that tests somehow descend from heaven on a fluffy cloud, free from human contact and cleansed of all human frailty. Impartial, perfect, and as divinely sourceless as an angel or Santa Claus.
But no. I'm pretty sure that tests are written by human beings. Imperfect, biased, judgment-making human beings.
That's fine. Making judgments is one of the most fundamental, and fundamentally necessary, human activities. We can't talk about not making judgments at all, but we can and must talk about making good judgments and about being aware of our biases as we make those judgments. That is part of what makes a teacher a professional-- an awareness of the many biases at play in a specific classroom and an ability correct for those. The "specific" part matters because context matters-- "Draw a picture of your father working?" can seem like a perfectly harmless question unless you know that Pat's father is dead and Chris's father is in prison.
In another post, this writer makes this extraordinary claim:
I don’t think you can improve equity, teacher quality and a love of learning without some form of reliable feedback – and exams are basically the best and most accurate method of gathering feedback that we have.
Oddly enough, that in itself is a bias that would affect a classroom. Imagine a student who brings up a drawing of a butterfly and says, "How do you like this?" And the teacher replies, "Sit down, Pat. We'll have to run it through the color spectrum analysis scanner to see how you did."
A reliance on testing means that we make judgments about what behaviors, knowledge and skill is worth measuring. A belief in the perfect awesomeness of standardized tests leads us quickly to the conclusion that only things that can be measured by standardized tests are worth knowing or doing. That's baloney. And it's a huge bias.
And that's just if the tests we're discussing are reasonably decent tests. If we get to tests such as the current crop of Big Standardized Tests that ask questions requiring students to identify the single "correct" author's purpose, or select the single "correct" most effective sentence, we have now thrown in more bias about the content itself.
Sure, testing can provide useful info of some sorts on some occasion. But we are not exposing students to some perfect, bias-free, inhuman judgment. Rather, we are allowing someone else's judgment and bias into our classroom, which is perfectly okay and not a bad way to balance out our own biases-- as long as we recognize that's what we're doing.
The best way to deal with bias is to put a bell on it, acknowledge it, hear it coming, and factor it out. To try to hide it behind claims of perfect inhuman judgment is to give that bias enormous power that it does not deserve to have, and that's what writers like the blogger in question propose to do.