Philosophy of Engagement

Just as the tail wags the dog in politics, I know that the test often determines what is taught in the classroom. (To be fair, the curriculum determines what is on the test, but the curriculum often leaves much room for interpretation.) This means that having great tests is essential to having great education. If tests simply measure basic skills and knowledge, we can be certain that this is the minimum that will be taught. If tests provide challenging problems to solve, we can be assured that most classrooms will attempt to teach students how to solve challenging problems. If tests ignore painful parts of a country’s history, those parts of our collective memory are more likely to fade. Well composed tests which are aligned with a challenging curriculum and scored fairly are not just tools to measure what happens behind closed classroom doors, they are statements of what we think is important for our citizens to know. They are a piece of the social contract.

In the U.S., the accountability movement has had both positive and unintended negative consequences. Because schools are required to report disaggregated test scores, they have focused more resources on groups of students who used to be left to fail. Unfortunately, the punitive nature of the consequences associated with this movement have made some schools focus on getting students to simply pass the test–sometimes by dubious means–rather than getting students to improve their skills and knowledge. How does one avoid this? Design a better test. The IB Physics Test, for instance, always asks a question about something that students have not seen. If they have learned how to think like a scientist, however, they will be able to use these skills to figure it out. The only way to improve your score on such a question is to practice thinking like a scientist–just what students should be doing in science class!

At first glance, the measurement field may seem to be at odds with the citizen scholar philosophy. However, I would argue that large-scale assessment of what students know and can do is a powerful component of ensuring that all students have access to a great education.  Large-scale testing should not be something that is done to teachers and schools, it should be done with them. Decisions that are made on the basis of test scores must be made with the classroom in mind because the classroom is the level at which real change occurs in education. One way to do this is to work with teachers in the development of the test. I envision working with teachers to learn what they think will most help them in their classrooms and designing tests and score reports to provide the feedback that is desired in a way that makes it actionable. Given valid tests, teachers can embrace the ability to measure their student’s performance against other students or performance standards.

To be an engaged scholar, one must actively find and implement applications of one’s research in ways that impact and improve other people’s lives. One must go beyond simply considering the use of one’s research outside the academy to actively asking stakeholders, “Of what use can my research be in serving your needs and making your life better?” Engaged scholars do not simply deliver help to communities, they work alongside communities and stakeholders. They listen as well as talk and explain. They ask as well as answer questions. I see my role as a person who can build assessments with teachers–assessments that allow them to embrace the professional stance that inviting accountability provides–and who can be a voice for the power of measuring what happens in schools.

I believe that education is a basic human right. Reading, writing, and working with numbers are essential to participation in government, to understanding the state of the world, and to making a living. Education provides people with choices and dignity. It is a social currency that cannot be underestimated. Measuring all students’ knowledge and skills honestly and accurately is essential. I plan to measure and to do it well.