A little critical thinking goes a long way

Tom Dunn - Contributing Columnist

In my last article on state level education discussions, I referred to a presentation University of North Carolina Professor Gregory Cizek gave to the state board of education on the validity of using computers to score essays on the state tests students must take. I wrote that it doesn’t matter how the tests are graded as long as the state continues to misuse the results to “prove” things they do not prove. Professor Cizek’s response to my article, which can be found in today’s Letters to the Editor, indicates some confusion as to my position on state testing that I would like to clarify.

To begin, I never referred to Professor Cizek as “the pointy-headed academic.” That is a less than flattering nickname he bestowed upon himself.

He writes that he wishes I would have read more than a couple of sentences of his explanation supporting computer grading. But, as I wrote in my original article, how tests are graded does not matter as long as the state continues to misuse the results to draw incorrect conclusions.

My “drawing incorrect conclusions” charge seems to be where I have confused Professor Cizek, because he asks, “What are the incorrect conclusions being drawn (from the test results)?”

He seems to understand that I am not saying that when a student’s essay is scored as weak that the student has in truth actually mastered the Ohio writing standards (although most teachers have seen specific examples of students with adequate skills inexplicably “failing” the state tests and students with minimal skills just an inexplicably “passing” them, so they are not foolproof.)

He also suggests that I don’t seem to be saying that extra writing instruction for students identified as weak writers is a “false solution.” He is correct on both counts.

What I AM saying is that the state incorrectly uses test results to, as it says, “tell members of the community how your school is performing.” Since all credible research tells us there are a multitude of factors other than the school a child attends that contributes to his or her success, to pretend as if the entire responsibility for student growth falls on the shoulders of schools is a lie. The state could just as easily say that test results “tell members of the community how well your parents are performing,” or it could say that they “tell members of the community how your students are performing.” But, it does neither.

Instead, it lays the responsibility for student test results solely at the feet of the school despite all the research that tells us of the much larger impact a child’s environment, including his or her parents, as well as the child’s ability and work ethic, have on his or her success. THAT is the incorrect conclusion the state draws, that is the incorrect conclusion it publicizes, that is the incorrect conclusion on which state leaders base all of their policies, and that is why those policies fail.

The professor acknowledges that I “appear to be saying that students who are not successful face many challenges that lead to that lack of success—perhaps problems like poverty; or that they may have predominately newer/less experienced/or less effective teachers; or home environments that are not as advantaged, literacy-rich, or supportive as the home environments of students who are more successful.”

That is exactly what I am saying, and when policy-makers ignore these other very important factors while wasting time discussing inane topics such as how tests are graded, they are failing the very children they are charged with protecting.

Professor Cizek also appears to erroneously believe that I support eliminating tests. I have often written that WHEN USED CORRECTLY test results are an integral part of a child’s academic growth. “When used correctly” means they are used to reveal a student’s strengths and weaknesses, which then drives the instruction they are given.

But that is not how the state uses them. It uses them to “tell you how well your school is performing,” and that is an invalid conclusion to draw. THAT, and not the elimination of testing, is the yardstick to which Professor Cizek refers to in his response, that I want to “burn down.”

He also suggests that I am blaming the way tests are scored or the tests themselves for the problems children who fail face. He writes that “no kind of scoring, no different set of writing standards, no change in testing mode (paper and pencil vs. computer, for example), or any other test-related factor is going to address the kinds of problems he—and all of us—are concerned about.” He is correct, which is exactly my point. I am blaming a state superintendent and board that brings a testing expert to Ohio to discuss how tests are scored instead of looking for solutions to the “problems all of us are concerned about.”

I also agree with Professor Cizek in that our common goal should be to produce kids with a greater ability for critical analysis. Taking it further, my rainbow, unicorn, and fairy tale dream would be that policy makers would demonstrate this critical thinking ability a little bit better themselves.


Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.