Chapter 5 – The Testing Movement

Jim McMahon taught English at small, suburban Spackenkill High School where I was assistant principal and his classes included a “school group” of juniors. “School group” was a label for students with weak academic skills and a proclivity for social and school discipline problems.

Due to the “seniority pecking order,” they were usually saddled with a less experienced teacher who was charged with keeping them from breaking the furniture while hopefully getting them to read a few books just a bit more challenging than comic books (which can actually be challenging).

As the assistant principal I saw more than one student from this class for typical behavioral issues: smoking in school, skipping classes or ditching the entire day, fighting in the cafeteria, cursing out a teacher, etc.

Jim decided to buck the trend of weekly spelling tests, diagramming sentences and rewriting one paragraph “essays” and have this “school group” perform a play.

The talk in the faculty room labelled this decision as heresy.  Didn’t he know that these kids had to take and pass a required Basic Competency Test? What was he thinking?

The sky is falling, the sky is falling

The Basic Competency Tests in the mid-1970s was the first of what would become a testing movement that continues today. And, as with today’s tests, the BCT tests brought with them a wave of panic by teachers who didn’t think the “school group could pass the tests.”

However these tests were a joke. In fact, I overheard one of the math teachers say: “Give me two weeks, two 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% did pass with ease on their first attempt.
Given the fact that everyone taught their own curriculum to “school groups” in New York State at the time it is little wonder that the Basic Competency Test was designed with low standards. The college bound kids took Regents exams with a more challenging and structured curriculum and very predictable tests administered in June, August and January.

In any case Jim 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 humanism, 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 English class. Remember, this was a group selected for Jim’s class because they couldn’t read and write well enough to be considered candidates for college.

They also were not drama students and this was a very difficult play for kids to perform well. One particularly sullen, long haired boy who had been to my office several times would play the lead Randle McMurphy role. While his personality fit the role, I couldn’t see him being successful with the acting discipline and teamwork required for the role. (By now, 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 would 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 kids in the audience and smiles, hugs and slaps on the back of 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 kids would do with the full play and an audience of adults including their parents whose previous contacts with the school came only when their kids got in trouble.

Later that night the kids put on an outstanding play with a minimum of slip ups, flubbed lines and recoveries you’d see in any high school play 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 kids 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 Spackenkill shortly after this play was performed and I never saw him again. But his impact on me as an educator was significant.

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 that what I had seen Jim McMahon’s class perform was technically called an authentic assessment of their English skills. An authentic assessment means 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 profit-seeking test-making companies.

As the psychometricians who develop the inauthentic tests will tell you the bubble tests can be statistically much 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 kids 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 analyses by the teacher.

These rubrics are inherently more unreliable than the bubble sheet tests. Three highly trained teachers evaluating the same acting performance using the same rubric on the same kid in the play would surely get three different scores. On the other hand, rubrics and the bubble sheets can’t measure intangibles like student motivation and confidence or how students see themselves as learners and as people.

A More Valid Measure of Knowledge and Skill Gains

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 who are more confident in their communication skills and hopefully more adept at understanding and dealing effectively with communication subtleties.

Jim’s students’ theater performance is a much more valid measurement of their knowledge and skill gains in these areas than the psychometrically reliable substitute skills measured by the 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 the students’ learning as anyone who has performed in a play, in a band or orchestra concert or for a school sports team in an athletic contest can fully understand.

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