New York State Commissioner: “Life is One Big Test” Good, Lord, IT IS NOT

When former Florida superintendent MaryEllen Elia was selected by the New York State Board of Regents to succeed John King, Jr. as Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, I predicted that parents could expect a “pro-testing charm offensive” as one of her first orders of business.  There was certainly no chance that Ms. Elia was selected in order to diminish the role of standardized testing in the state.  One of her key accomplishments in the Hillsborough school district in Florida was securing a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a teacher evaluation system that, while including mentoring and other support mechanisms, made use of “fair and accurate measures of effective teaching” which is Gates Foundation shorthand for standardized testing.  And in fact, the system she developed did use standardized test scores for 40% of teacher evaluations.  She begins her job as Commissioner now in a state where the legislature awarded Governor Andrew Cuomo his desire to make student scores on standardized tests a full 50% of the teacher evaluation matrix.  In any fair evaluation, Commissioner Elia is an acolyte of today’s Education Reform Trifecta: Common Standards, Standardized Examinations, and Test Based Teacher/School Evaluation.

So our new Commissioner has begun the anticipated charm offensive with a visit to Sweet Home Middle School in Amherst, NY.  The Erie County school district is where Commissioner Elia began her career in 1970, and she explained to the parents, teachers, and administrators there that her office will begin a review of the Common Core State Standards, accompanying assessments, and their use in teacher evaluation. At the same time as her visit, the NYSED announced that London-based publishing giant Pearson will be replaced by Questar Assessment to create the Common Core aligned mathematics and English language arts tests to be be used next year.

Commissioner Elia was also honest enough to express her belief that testing is important and that teachers should be accountable for students’ scores:

“I am not a person who believes that children shouldn’t be tested,” she said. “Life is one big test. We have to get to the point where people are at peace with that.” (emphasis added)

“Life is one big test.  We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”


Allow me to grant our new Commissioner with a fraction of a loaf: in life, people are evaluated in all kinds of circumstance, both within school and outside of school.  I have no particular interest in sheltering people, children or otherwise, from situations where evaluation is an essential component.  Further, I believe that it is important to embrace failure as both instructive and as a legitimate tool for building problem solving and problem coping skills.  Good teachers know that assisting children through the Zone of Proximal Development is both difficult and elating, and that most students will face real struggle as they tread “the distance between” their current developmental level and “the level of potential development”.  Almost any learning task worth doing is one where students will need to risk failure if they are to truly succeed in any form of sophisticated learning, and frequently new skills and knowledge have to be developed during the completion of the task.  Education is at its best when students “fail” frequently, examine the causes of their failures, make new plans, and try again.  Without evaluation in the form of goals and instructive feedback by teachers, such experiences are much more difficult and rely upon happenstance rather than teaching.

What does any of this have to do with standardized testing?  Almost nothing at all.

There are a few times in life when performance on a standardized test has some critical impact on your future. College bound secondary students taking examinations like the SAT and the ACT (although a growing number of schools either do not use examinations or are “test flexible” when it comes to admissions). Examinations such as the GRE, the LSAT, and the MCAT for entrance to graduate or professional study.  Various examinations that lead to professional licensure (PRAXIS, various state Bar exams, the USMLE, the civil service exam).  And that’s about it.  Almost every other evaluation students or professionals are subjected to are vastly different than standardized examinations, and the skill sets involved in standardized test taking are rarely significant skills when compared to the kinds of performances that students should do to truly demonstrate their readiness in a variety of life’s personal and professional endeavors.

When well written, a standardized exam which is administered unobtrusively and with very low stakes, can be a reasonable component of monitoring a school system overall.  Value added modeling when used at school or district levels can lead us to ask important questions about what some schools or districts are doing well that might be able to be replicated and which schools and districts need further investigation and possible assistance.  And that is about it, making them an important but relatively weak tool in our school improvement kit, and they certainly do not do a good job of telling us about what individual teachers are students are capable of.  Even this “next generation” of Common Core aligned tests that testing enthusiasts promise us will test actual meaningful skills fall far short of the goal and hardly justify their enormous expense and disruptive presence.  New York teacher Julie Campbell, who describes herself as in favor of standards and not opposed to testing, recently described massive flaws in the New York examinations:

The four-point extended response question is troubling in and of itself because it instructs students to: explain how Zac Sunderland from “The Young Man and the Sea” demonstrates the ideas described in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker.”  After reading both passages, one might find it difficult to argue that Zac Sunderland demonstrates the ideas found in “How to be a Smart Risk-Taker” because sailing solo around the world as a teenager is a pretty outrageous risk! But the question does not allow students to evaluate Zac as a risk taker and decide whether he demonstrates the ideas in the risk taker passage. Such a question, in fact, could be a good critical thinking exercise in line with the Common Core standards! Rather students are essentially given a thesis that they must defend: they MUST prove that Zac demonstrates competency in his risk/reward analysis.

So one can hardly be surprised to find an answer like this:

 One idea described in “How to be a Smart Risk-taker” is evaluating risks. It is smart to take a risk only when the potential upside outweighs the potential downside. Zac took the risk because the downside “dying” was outweighed by the upside (adventure, experience, record, and showing that young people can do way more than expected from them). (pg 87)

Do you find this to be a valid claim? Is the downside of “dying” really outweighed by the upside, “adventure”? Is this example indicative of Zac Sunderland being a “Smart Risk Taker”? I think most reasonable people would argue against this notion and surmise that the student has a flawed understanding of risk/reward based on the passage. According to Pearson and New York State, however, this response is exemplary. It gets a 4.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that testing advocates are vastly overreaching not only on kinds of meaningful skills that they can test at the mass level, but also on what kinds of uses they can tease from the results.  Commissioner Elia might believe that “life is one big test,” but it would be an appalling outcome if people “are at peace” with standardized testing and the misuse of standardized testing as some sort of sophisticated measure of what we can and cannot do.

Embedded in the Commissioner’s comment, however, is an assumption that I find not simply out of step with facts but deeply troubling if not outright sad.  “Life is one big test.”  Commissioner Elia suggests that testing is a good metaphor for life even though the kinds of tests to which she refers have almost no bearing on the important activities in which we engage throughout life, even the ones for which we are evaluated.  In fact, the tests she references have precious little to do with how we should want students to be evaluated in school except very occasionally and for low stakes reasons.  So even if we accept that her metaphor is accurate, and I do not, these are horrible evaluations to stand by as examples of life being “one big test.”

Besides, the metaphor is incomplete and a terrible way to present our lives.  While I accept and even welcome that life comes with times of evaluation, and I fully believe that it is necessary to fail at tasks in order to learn, there are simply very many times in our lives where the evaluative functions of tests have no real place.  What are some other metaphors for life  that Commissioner Elia did not mention?

Life is an exploration.  This is not news.  Children’s earliest learning comes through exploration of their surroundings and the kind of play that enables them to do so. We take in enormous amounts of information via our senses and begin to place what we know into different categories.  While we tend to think of life as exploration being most important for very young children, it is an integral part of our lives as adolescents and adults as well.  The development of interests and avocations is not restricted to early childhood development, and if we want our children to be adept in their adult lives, we have to see to their abilities to explore new locations, new information, new interests as thoroughly as their very youngest selves did as well.

Life is an investigation.  Beyond our explorations in life are our more involved investigations where we propose, examine, and draw conclusions about the world around us.  Small children, again, are masters of this, but if we are being honest, we must admit that adults need the tools of investigation in our lives too.  There are numerous circumstances, both formal and informal, where the ability to form a hypothesis based upon observation and to devise ways to test that hypothesis matter in significant ways.  Without meaningful and rich skills of investigation much of our personal and work lives would be extremely curtailed.

Life is a demonstration and performance. Whether we are constructing our interpersonal personae for others to encounter and interact with or whether we are providing evidence our ability to integrate knowledge and skills in a meaningful set of tasks, we frequently are called upon to demonstrate and to perform for others.  In school, performance based assessments are, indeed, assessments, but they have little overlap with the traditional testing and especially tradition standardized testing with which most are familiar.  Such tasks integrate exploration and investigation with skills aimed at showing how to combine knowledge, skills, and management with multiple ways of showing what has been learned.  These are capacities that matter significantly in the work world, and they also matter in our daily lives and interactions with others.  Further, professionals have to enact the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of their fields in order to provide important services for others.  Nobody is a doctor, for example, who cannot enact diagnosis, and skilled work of all kinds requires this ability as well.  It is interesting to note that in professional tasks requiring demonstration and performance, people are often evaluated, but standardize tests are far more frequently employed as gate keeping tools rather than as actual assessments of work well done.

Life is a collaboration and negotiation.  Many people assert that life is a competition, and there are certainly times when your ability to best others is of importance.  However, if you line up the frequency of times when you are directly competing with individuals next to the frequency of times when you have to rely upon and work well with others, it is not really, forgive me, a contest.  Both our personal and professional spheres contain mountains of accumulated knowledge and experience in the form of our family, peers, and colleagues, and it is monumentally wasteful to not call upon it when faced with new situations.  When parents and teachers intervene too quickly in children’s disputes, they deny children the experience of working out their differences and negotiating compromises that facility collaborative work.  The “plays well with others” mark is not just a throw away to small children on report cards – it is actually an indicator of a skill that will only grow in significance later in life.

Commissioner Elia, life is NOT “one big test.”  Life is made up of many things, and some of those things will even be evaluated.  But almost none of them resemble the kind of test you hope people make peace with.  The sooner you understand that, the sooner you will understand why New York is still a growing home for test refusal.


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5 responses to “New York State Commissioner: “Life is One Big Test” Good, Lord, IT IS NOT

  1. “Life is one big test. We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”
    This is the old Calvinist approach to “Heaven readiness”.

    • Zorba

      Well, yes, exactly.
      So much of American society is based upon the old Calvinist approach.
      Can’t get a decent job and have to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and other government help? You’re a loser and a parasite on society.
      Medicare and Social Security? They need to be down-sized and privatized, or otherwise you are a parasite on society.
      School? Well, really, we need to work towards privatizing the schools and hiring ill-trained and cheaper teachers who will drill the children in passing meaningless tests, and who will not be teaching critical thinking skills, or anything else that might cause the kids to question anything. After all, profits before all, and we want to produce compliant workers who will maximize profits for the corporations. (And, BTW, keep voting against their own self-interests.)
      Okay, call me an old 60’s lefty, but I continue to get increasingly alarmed at what is happening to our educational system. Not to mention the rest of the country. 😦

  2. Pingback: New York Testing Gets a Bit Weird | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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