The sky is falling, the sky is falling
The Basic Competency Test (BCT) in the mid-1970s was the first of what would become a testing movement that continues today. And, as with today’s standardized state tests, BCT tests elicited panic in teachers who didn’t think the “school groups” could pass the tests.
But the tests were a joke. In fact, I overheard one math teacher say: “Give me two weeks, 2 pounds of bird seed and a grey squirrel with above average dexterity so I can teach him to hold the pencil, and I’ll get him to pass the BCT.”
And, of course, over 95 percent of the “school group” did pass with ease on the first try.
Given the fact that teachers taught their own homegrown less-than-challenging curriculum to “school groups” in New York State at the time it was little wonder the Basic Competency Test was designed with such low standards. Without knowing what was being taught (every teacher had her/his own curriculum), test developers had to allow for a low degree of difficulty.
Meanwhile, the college bound students took Regents exams with a more challenging and structured curriculum and very predictable tests administered in June, August and January.
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Talk about a rebel
With little or no guidance and a groundswell of criticism, English teacher Jim McMahon threw caution to the wind and invested nearly two months of class time preparing for a public presentation of the Broadway play adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which at the time was a hit movie starring Jack Nicholson. The theme of the movie – rebel with a bad attitude in a mental hospital strikes a blow for humanity – didn’t sit well with some of the faculty room crowd, and I myself was doubtful Jim could pull this off with the motley crew assembled in his “school group” English class. Remember, these were students selected because they couldn’t read and write well enough to be considered candidates for college. And they had to take the BCT test at the end of the year.
They also were not drama students and this was a very difficult play for students to perform well.
One particularly sullen, long-haired boy who had been to my office several times would play the lead role of Randle McMurphy. While his personality fit the role, I couldn’t see him being successful with the discipline and teamwork required for the role. (At that time I, like most everyone else in education, was convinced a segment of the school population was not going to succeed for whatever reason.)
A school-wide assembly during the last class period of the day gave Jim’s class a chance to show their stuff to their high school peers with the performance of a single scene from the play as a teaser for the entire play which was to be performed later that evening.
I was backstage in my assistant principal role trying to make sure things ran smoothly. Jim’s students were obviously scared to death of looking stupid in front of their peers but it was also obvious they were well prepared. The audience started out a bit rowdy and more than a bit restless. But within three minutes the student actors had them paying close attention to every word, gesture and sigh. When the scene ended there was a roar of applause and appreciation from the students in the audience and smiles, hugs and slaps on the back for all the cast including “Mr. Sullen.”
I still remember the goose bumps I had when the applause erupted at the end of the scene. But I was still uncertain about how these students would do with the full play and an audience of adults including their parents whose previous contacts with the school came only when their children were in trouble.
Later that night the students put on an outstanding play with a minimum of slip-ups, flubbed lines and recoveries and some truly remarkable and effective student acting performances.
The audience was as appreciative as the students earlier in the day. The teaser performance appeared to have boosted Jim’s students’ confidence and the students in Jim’s class were beaming when they took their bows and still beaming a full week later when I saw them in the cafeteria or in the halls in our school. It was a total success.
Even the weekly spelling test proponents in the faculty room quieted down briefly, grudgingly acknowledging that something meaningful had happened in our school.
Jim left our school at the end of the year and I never saw him again. But his impact on me as an educator was significant.
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A few years later in my role as a high school principal, when I was reading books by Ted Sizer and John Goodlad and materials from the Coalition of Essential Schools, I realized what Jim McMahon’s class performed was technically called an “authentic assessment” of their English skills. An authentic assessment is a real test like an athletic contest or a concert performance by the band as contrasted with the inauthentic fill-in-the-bubble tests made by commercial test-making companies.
As the psychometricians who develop the inauthentic tests will tell you the bubble tests are statistically more reliable – the results can be repeated with different versions of the tests administered to the same test takers. Would Jim’s class have done as well, better, worse with a second play? Who knows?
Evaluating the academic success of individuals who participated in Jim’s play is cumbersome and tricky. Did the student who designed the sets really learn anything of value? Can any of these students read, write or speak better as a result of their work on this play? There are rubrics (complicated scoring systems) for evaluating essays, projects and even acting performances, but they are all approximations and they all involve subjective analysis by the teacher.
Three highly trained teachers evaluating the same acting performance using the same rubric on the same student in the play would come up with three different scores. On the other hand, rubrics and the bubble sheets cannot measure intangibles like student motivation and confidence or how students see themselves as learners and as people.
Characteristics of effective learning
The bubble sheet test proponents frequently miss a key point in the discussion on assessments: The ultimate goal of Jim’s English class is to make his students better readers, writers, listeners and speakers, more confident in their communication skills and hopefully more adept at understanding and dealing effectively with the subtleties of communication.
Jim’s students’ theater performance is a more valid measurement of knowledge and skill gains in these areas than psychometrically reliable substitute skills measured by bubble sheet tests. If you are acting in the role of rebel Randle McMurphy, and the lines you must deliver require you to show anger and sensitivity at the same time, your acting task will be challenging and your audience will know immediately if you have succeeded or failed. How could anyone fit that skill set in a bubble sheet test question? You can’t.
And Jim’s theater performance has the added benefit of providing motivation, structure and purpose to student learning, as anyone who has performed in a play, a band or orchestra concert or for a school sports team in an athletic contest knows.
Have the bubble sheet tests and the endless prep exercises for those tests had a positive impact on student motivation to learn? Not likely. An overemphasis on testing definitely leads to problems. We could easily replace failing instruction in many classrooms with failing, prescriptive and even more boring instruction for the benefit of testing.
Jim’s play had one other characteristic that bubble sheet tests don’t. Jim’s class performed that play in 1978, more than 35 years ago, and his students are now in their early 50s. How many of them still remember that play and their role in its success? No doubt, every one of them.
How many of them were impacted in some positive and meaningful way as learners, as parents and as workers by their experience in that play? My guess, probably more than one and maybe more than a handful. How many of us can remember anything meaningful coming from our preparation for and participation in any of the many bubble sheet tests we encountered in our years in school? Read more.
About Lonnie Palmer
In 1970, Lonnie Palmer graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics and planned to continue on to a Ph.D. program but was interrupted by a notice from the U.S. Government – a draft notice. Knowing his low number would preempt plans to continue his education, Palmer took a temporary position teaching high school science — and a reluctant education reformer was born. Read more.