Quantum Theory, the Uncertainty Principle, and the Alchemy of Standardized Testing

By Wasserman, Selma | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Quantum Theory, the Uncertainty Principle, and the Alchemy of Standardized Testing


Wasserman, Selma, Phi Delta Kappan


It is not the tests that should drive what we do in the act of teaching, Ms. Wassermann reminds us. Rather, all of us in the profession must say: this is what is important to us in the education of our youth. Let the ways of assessment we devise determine whether we have achieved our goals.

IT WAS LATE spring during my first year of teaching when I was initiated into the world of standardized testing. The school board had ruled, in its infinite wisdom and over strong teacher protest, to administer a districtwide standardized achievement test to all first- grade classes.

On the scheduled day of testing, the principal came to my room to deliver the sealed package of tests for my class. She placed the package in my hands as if she were offering me the Dead Sea Scrolls. With the package came her repeated admonitions about following explicitly the instructions in the Manual of Directions. No deviations were to be allowed. Time limits were to be faithfully obeyed: 10:00, pencils up; 10:30, pencils down. Big Brother was watching us.

At the designated hour, along with every other first-grade teacher in every school in the district, I broke the seal of the test package and distributed copies to each of the children, whose desks were now arranged in rows, as per the instructions. Two sharpened pencils were in the pencil slot on each desk. According to the instructions, the children were bathroomed and watered before the test was to begin. The preparations alone were exhausting and nerve-wracking.

This first-grade class of 26 children from a working-class suburban community just outside New York City was a heterogeneous group of delightful, energetic 6-year-olds, and, like children everywhere, they were full of surprises. Normally spirited, they were now extraordinarily quiet, the stress in the air palpable. Doubtless, they were reflecting my own anxieties, for at this stage of their lives, they hardly knew the difference between a standardized test and an artichoke. But it was clear that I had communicated my feeling that much was riding on the outcome of their performance.

The test began with a list of vocabulary words that the children were to define by blacking-in the space for the correct choice from among four options. In my class of 26 children, about three-quarters had made their way through preprimers and primers and were now considered to be reading at the "first-grade level." Four children were still chugging along in their primers and were likely to move into their first readers by the end of the year. At the far end of the spectrum, Judy Foley and Benny Camareri were struggling to make sense of a few basic words. For them, decoding was one of the great mysteries of life. As instructed, I walked the aisles, ensuring that the children were making their marks properly and seeing that they kept their eyes on their own papers - not that that was ever an issue.

Jimmy Tully, one of the better readers in the class, took his time, carefully decoding the words in the first column of the test booklet. I could see him struggle with the unknown words, bravely sounding them out and finding the appropriate match. By the time he had gotten to the seventh word on the list, his anxiety level had peaked and his face had turned a deep rose. I touched his shoulder to comfort him, and, in response, he laid his pencil down, lowered his head, and wept. Torn between my human feelings and the detailed prohibitions about test taking, I felt like a killer teacher.

Judy Foley, for whom decoding words was an Everest yet to be conquered, sped through the test as if she had been given all the answers in advance. She blackened slots one after another, never bothering herself with the act of reading. In less than three minutes, she had filled in choices for the entire list of 25 words. For Judy, the test was more like a coloring exercise. For Jimmy, it was a trial by fire.

When the test papers were marked, Jimmy's paper showed that he had correctly defined all of the first seven words on the list - that is, all of those he had time to complete. …

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