Sunday, February 10, 2013

Huck Finn Takes a Standardized Test

I have a soft spot for the "bad" kids.

My definition of a "bad" kid is a creative disrupter.  These students refuse to follow rules simply because they are there and show their disdain for "stupid" ideas by acting independently, following their own logic.

I qualify these characters worthy of celebration.

Huck Finn lives.  Mark Twain's quintessential bad boy is the American spirit incarnate: He looks at the landscape and acts adventurously, getting off the beaten path and creating his own.

Where would we be if whole legions of Huck Finns had not asked us to reconsider "sivilization"?

So I was amused by the student response to the MAPS test required by the district in Seattle.

Some of the kids just would not play by the rules.

And sometimes they made errors that fit only into the category of kid logicthe delightful way a child's mind can shift adult paradigms. (My son at age three observed that a jet plane was "scratching the sky."  Yeah. Take a look at those jet trails some time.)

So here's what some kids did:

  • When some kindergarteners were directed to put the mouse on the item, they lifted the mouse and placed it on the computer monitor. 
  • When students figured out that a correct answer up-leveled the questions and made them harder, they deliberately answered questions incorrectly so the computer would serve up easier questions.
  • When students were told it would not affect their grades, they rushed through the reading comprehension test without reading so they could get back to doing something they wanted to do.  (Have you ever read something you didn't want to read?  It's really hard to care about it.)

I would qualify all these errors as "good mistakes" a phrase I first heard from a tennis coach.  "That was a good mistake!" he exalted once when a ball went long.  Hitting balls short was a bad mistake--holding the racket incorrectly.  A long ball meant I was starting to get it: follow through and let it sail.

The qualification of an error as a good one was so empowering that I still use it, rewarding errors that show a new skill in the offing.    

I'd qualify all of the above actions as a good mistakes. In every one there is strong evidence of critical thinking.

To a mechanized standardized test, the answer is either right or wrong--no qualification.  It takes the observation of a human being to follow the logic of the error.  

Ironically, these mechanized tests are to be used to measure the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom.  To a teacher who has a led a career of watching and coaching kid's through their own kid logic, relying on mechanized scores feels like tying your hands behind your back while someone slaps you in the face.

So Huck Finn broke the rules.  

He could not ignore his own logic when deciding whether or not to steal Jim out of slavery and help him back to his family. He tears up the letter to Miss Watson that would have revealed Jim's whereabouts:
I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right then, I'll go to hell"--and tore it up.  It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.  And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. 
Sometimes, when faced with injustice, the only choice is taking the road to hell.

As of four days ago the administration of Seattle was still sticking to its sivilized notion of holding teachers accountable.

Long live Huck Finn.


  1. So love your post. My rants on the MAP tests are so validated by the observations you describe. I needed to hear how the tests play out in reality. Here's to the creative disrupters!

  2. I am also delighted when I see my students TRYING to do their best on the MAP because they want to see if they can beat their previous scores, but no doubt about it, I love the intentional, intelligent rebel just as much. It's the apathetic ones who get me down.

  3. Yes! to the idea of a "good mistake." Early in my teaching career I was blind to this notion. I didn't understand the types of inferences young people make as they struggle to make meaning of texts - inferences based on their knowledge of the world, not the knowledge held by some multiple-choice test creator.

    And therein lies the biggest problem with multiple-choice reading tests, in my opinion. They do not give credit to the kinds of mistakes students make as they circle closer and closer to true understanding. Instead, all they learn from multiple-choice tests is that they must be stupid, because they don't choose as many "correct" answers as the "smart" kids.

    The more we use these flawed standardized tests, the more likely our less-advantaged students will give up on school.

  4. So....can we all agree we need a human being involved in these assessments somewhere? Jem Muldoon's observations about Computer Adaptive Tests (CAT) can be read here:
    Thanks Jem for adding your observations about the psychological stress of taking these tests.