The Sound of Hope Dying

Today the middle school where I work is filled with the sound of hope dying. Why do I say that? Today the State of Michigan decrees that all eighth-grade students must take the PSAT with no accommodations, so today is the day when many students in my school decide they will never be good enough to go to college. Now mind you, some of my students were living in a refugee camp a year ago, some live in homes where they are the only English speakers, some live in homes where they are the primary caregiver and some do not know if there will be dinner tonight. But now most of these students know that college is not something they can aspire to reach.

How did we get here? Back in my day (yes, I am an old fogey) the PSAT was for students in tenth grade who were looking for scholarships, extra practice before the SAT or admission to honors programs. Of course, this was before education became a competitive sport among school districts with numbers on the scoreboard, i.e. test scores being the only thing that really matters. Actual students have been lost to that great and sometimes useful metric of Big Data. Kids lives take a back seat to the needs of politicians to exercise their power.

I am not saying that any of these people set out to be dream murderers. The problem is that their lack of understanding becomes the death of our dreams. Data can only get you so far. Data cannot measure the hopeful gleam in a teens eye when they speak of their desire to become a doctor or an engineer to repair all the damage they have witnessed in their short lives. Data cannot make a child eager to come to school to learn a new skill. Data does not move the human heart in most cases.

So what is the solution? I would propose a radical idea. I believe all assessment should benefit students and inform teachers. Anything that does not help meet a child’s educational needs should be eliminated. There are several standardized assessments that might meet the needs of students, teachers and the political system. There are smart assessments that can adjust to measure the child’s actual strengths and weakness and give information that can help both students and teachers to set good growth goals and to measure if they reach them. Our current assessment system is more of a gotcha game than an actual means of information. PSAT, MSTEP and their political ilk are single data point politically motivated traps that snare the dreams of our young and the optimism of our teachers. They only benefit the dream murders. We can do better than this. Our future demands it.

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