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External Pressure/Internal Determination


Self Determination Theory research has consistently demonstrated that more autonomous forms of motivation are associated with a host of positive outcomes from greater academic performance, creativity, and persistence, to enhanced learner wellness.

~Richard Ryan & Netta Weinstein~

Like most educators I look upon high stakes testing not unlike the way passing drivers examine an roadside accident scene; with a mix of dread and fascination. Standardized tests repel and and compel us at the same time and create a great deal of bother and busyness before, during and after the administration.

As a school administrator I have some clear legal responsibilities for overseeing the administration of these assessments in our school. I also have the opportunity, through my role, to try contextualize this and make it more of a process and less of an event~ not unlike the iconic Irish police officer who says “Alright now, nothing to see here, move along.”

Thanks to some very smart people, like  Daniel Pink, Richard Elmore, John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black and Alfie Kohn, there are a few things I’ve learned about this whole ‘testing’ thing that guide my work now and inform my decision making:

-Externally administered standardized tests will never change teaching practice and improve learning for all students: Elmore likens the belief that tests can ”change practice’ to pushing on a string. The external forces do not have the capacity to change what is actually learned in classrooms because this is a function of teaching and learning, which is a complex set of internal, school and classroom based set of relationships (teachers, families, students).

-Teaching, not testing improves learning: Hattie, Black and Wiliam, through their meta-analysis of impacts and influences identify the actions that lead to student success (and neither involve external testing). They speak to the enormous impact that formative assessments or feedback and teaching quality have on student learning. Both aspects are internal, teacher determined factors and Black and Wiliam’s research points out that effective, teacher designed formative assessments lead to success on all measures- including standardized tests.

-When it really matters sticks and carrots don’t really work: The work of Pink, Kohn and the Ryan & Weinstein article quoted at the top confirm that the achievement of complex and challenging tasks (and what is more complex than teaching and learning) is an internally-driven, relationship-based process that is actually sidetracked by external pressures such as reward programs or sanctions for non-performance. Over the past 15 years; in every jurisdiction that has administered, shared and publicized the results of schools performance there has been a pattern of rapid increases, followed by a stall or decline in the results, if the carrots and sticks worked wouldn’t we be at maximum achievement rates?   It turns out that the rewards people (students and teachers) value are autonomy, purpose and mastery (Pink).

What, then, do we do as educators in the face of these external pressures? Learning about, and putting into practice the insights and findings of the researchers listed above has been a big help to me. Strong, internal accountability networks and systems that weave teachers with teachers, teachers with students and families and students with students are essential; not to eliminate the external accountability tools (like standardized tests) but to contextualize and regulate them. The capacity and resources needed to determine student wellness and success are inside the building, are we determined enough to make this a reality?

  1. Royan Lee
    July 12, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Brian, this is a fresh take on a too often polarized and extremist topic. Still, it does seem that our friends in the States and other places are going through a bit of a different level of scary.

  2. Cyndie Jacobs
    July 12, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I echo what Royan has stated about the obsession towards testing in the US. Here, though, I think there is still far too much focus on the preparation for kids to write the assessments. Test results are used to rank schools and boards by the Fraser Institute and other organizations. How does that improve student learning?

    We have been advocating random sampling for years. Unfortunately, this continues to fall on deaf ears.

    The other question is: “What will it take to decrease the focus on standardized testing to enable teachers and students to focus on learning?

  3. July 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Thank you both for your replies. My hope and goal is to achieve, at the school level, an outcome that informs our learning as teachers and students while providing the necessary counter to the external sources of pressure that are placed on schools.

    I’m not actually advocating for the elimination of these tests, there is no political will for this given our current climate. Nor is there, I feel, sufficient trust in the efficacy and accuracy of teacher assessment practices on the part of many of the stakeholders involved. Which is why I love Cyndie’s question…

    I’m blunt with the teachers I work with when I tell them that photocopying a test developed by a text book publisher, or assigning the same novel, or spelling list, to 30 kids, is no different than what is done by EQAO.

    We can’t have it both ways. Personalized and precise teaching matters, building a culture of respect and inclusion matters, not pitting our students and families against one another, through contests and assemblies, matters. These are the actions of educators that are not engaged in reflection and inquiry into their practice. If we actually change the things I’ve listed, we’ll have a system that is a counter to the tests.

    Countering a blunt instrument with another blunt instrument only buys one a standoff, which what we have. What we need are precise instruments…

  4. July 12, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Wow, Brian, that is so true. We’ve got to watch the extent to which we are throwing stones from our glass house.

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