Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 26, 2013

MARK HEINIG: Tests, Tony and tomorrow: a look ahead

Will the next generation test kids better than we?


Kokomo Tribune

---- — I find myself reading incessantly about the manipu-lation of ISTEP-plus test scores by the Indiana Department of Education, when Tony Bennett was at the helm. I’m certainly no disciple of our former state schools chief. I have written so many articles criticizing the man and his policies that nobody could consider us friends. But we aren’t enemies either.

He is right in insisting that we must reform our schools, both public and nonpublic. He was wrong in the way he handled the Christel House affair. It involves ethical issues that may discredit him, even though he probably considered his actions appropriate. Unfortunately, good intentions mean very little to people who don’t understand the issue — any issue!

Dr. Bennett tried to do too much too quickly. That led to widespread confusion and distrust. Apparently, Bennett lacks the communication skills to adequately explain his program and the leadership skills to restore public confidence in it. Ironically, the part of the public with the most at stake is also the part least likely to understand: our school children!

As I read about standardized tests and the larger issue of school reform, I find plenty of good arguments, both pro and con. What I don’t find are arguments specifically written to help our kids understand the dispute — both sides of it! That’s a tragic oversight. I don’t think I have ever seen an issue better suited to teach youngsters about how our government functions.

Old social studies teachers (like me!) have spent years hoping for such an ideal opportunity to help students experience the democratic process through real-life simulations and other hands-on learning activities. We rarely have the chance to actively engage our kids with lessons about something so relevant to each one of them. Dr. Bennett has inadvertently given us that chance.

When I say “us” in this context, I mean all of us! Teaching social studies or any other subject isn’t only the task of certified teachers. When I was a principal, I used to say everybody who can influence kids is a teacher. Parents, counselors, administrators, school board members, clergy, government officials and others share this responsibility. Each generation has a duty to pass its knowledge on to the next generation. Fulfilling this duty is the key to all human progress.

We do need standardized tests from the primary level to college, graduate school and culminating in the qualifying examinations for many professions. When I got my first teaching job, I worked for a principal who believed everything kids learn can be evaluated with objective tests like the ISTEP. Most objective test questions have one and only one correct response: multiple choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank and short answer.

I disagreed with my principal. I believed students also learn things we can only evaluate with subjective questions. Those questions can have more than one correct answer. Most of them involve writing essays. We grade them by deciding how well students support their opinions. I still believe we need to include essay questions and other subjective techniques if we wish to comprehensively assess student progress.

In another 30 years or so, Dr. Bennett and I will probably be forgotten. Some of Bennett’s reforms will have succeeded and others will have disappeared. My thoughts are destined for the same fate.

The only trace of us will be in the knowledge and skills our generation shares with our descendants. Educators, parents and other community members still will need to evaluate how much students learn. If they can do that better than we do it now, we will share in their success.

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana principal and teacher. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.