Sacrificing to the Test

I spent about 15 hours last week proctoring the state proficiency exams we are required to give to our students. It is an awful week for everyone. By Friday, the students were so burned out that they could barely think.

My responsibility as a proctor was to stare at them for two and a half hours, occasionally walking up and down the rows and looking over their shoulders. It occurred to me as I was sitting there that I didn’t know the etymology of ‘proctor.’ Obviously Latin, but I couldn’t think of what word it came from.

I couldn’t abandon my staring duties to go find a Latin dictionary, so I just forgot about it until a few minutes ago.

‘Proctor’ is a medieval shortening of ‘procurator.’ We think of procurators as people working in museums, but it originally meant a steward or treasurer. ‘Procuro,’ the verb it derives from, means ‘to look after, administer, have charge of.’ Interestingly, it also has the meaning, ‘to avert by sacrifice, to expiate.’

Etymology yields such interesting ironies. Who are we sacrificing with these tests? What sins are we forcing our children to expiate?

Proficiency tests with high stakes – graduation tests – were put in place so that schools would stop graduating kids who can’t read and do basic math. When students fail the test, we remediate. When remediation doesn’t work, we re-design the curriculum, aligning it with the test. We give inservices, fire entire faculties when their school’s scores don’t improve. And when more students begin to pass, we add tests, make them harder.

There is only one thing that these tests reveal: socio-economic status. Class size, experience level of teachers, money spent, technology, longer school days, longer school years, more required courses – none of these things correlate with the success and failure of our students on these tests as SES does.

What we have created is a way to weed out the poor, make them drop out of school and work at minimum wage jobs.

We’ve also created a way to make sure students learn nothing interesting. We’re too busy teaching them how to take tests, giving tests, tutoring, and realigning the curriculum to teach them how to think creatively or critically.

Give the test to the legislators who insist that we give them to our students. Give them to successful people – doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen. They won’t all pass either. How much algebra and geometry do you remember? Surveys of the general public show us that many people can’t find their own state on a map.

But they won’t be sacrificed to a test that tells us what we already know.

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