John Jensen: De-fogging High Stakes Testing, Part 4

by John Jensen, PhD

In my prior articles (Part I, Part II, Part III), I have suggested: 1) Don’t do anything to children that kills their motivation to learn, 2) gather data about the system by testing children anonymously and unscheduled, and 3) design learning around explanation instead of test-taking.

A fourth issue in the high-stakes testing debate is what we mean by “challenging” children.

The thinking goes like this: If their childhood is too comfortable, if life is too easy for them, they form an unrealistic picture of adult life and need to “man up.” Hard knocks enable them to learn to cope with stresses they will face later, and providing information is just a temporary challenge.

“We need the test data,” a correspondent writes. “We need the kids to be invested and work on performing well. We just need to quit acting like it’s something other than data. It’s a weird situation.”  She shifts then to children’s broader need.

“But wait,” she continues. “Should there be no tests? Life is a test. What you wear to an interview is a test. Climbing a tree is a test. Kids will have to take SAT, Acuplacer, drivers tests, medical and law school tests. We over-test to be sure, and use the data horrifically, but it’s no favor to them, is it, to protect them from all adversity. Tests are one form of useful adversity. No?”

So we want “useful adversity.”  What’s that?

Here’s harmful adversity.  The crux is that you could not handle the adversity.

Any counselor, facing people’s problems day by day, commonly encounters thought-patterns that  undermine mature behavior. People go to a counselor because they are stuck, and time and again the thinking in which they’re stuck originated with authority figures who attacked their belief in their intrinsic worth, in the efficacy of their efforts, in the likelihood of their eventual success, and so on.  While some stresses stimulate, others inflict damage. The result is that people do not successfully handle what they face.  So if you’re willing to stress a child, you should have sense enough to stop short of wounding him/her.

If that idea doesn’t elicit a spontaneous “Of course!” from you, you might examine your thinking. The big danger to children is from adults who exercise power over them without caring about its effect. Adults usually want to manage the education system, while the effect on individual students recedes from their screen. Pyrrhic victories become okay.  Management controls the scene even though it destroys many students’ interest in learning.

Impact matters. Schools are a significant authority to children, representing the first official face of society they ever encounter. Its initial message is ”You are who we say you are,” even though a student’s condition is due to influences largely beyond his control. Entering from a home of semi-literate, non-functioning, addicted, criminal, indifferent, or non-functioning parents—or merely from prior classrooms that failed to teach him–he is not likely to place high on the school’s ladder of esteem. The more adversity we apply to him that he cannot successfully manage, the earlier he quits formal education..

If we need data about his district, school, or classroom as my correspondent asserted,  the need is for data describing the group, which we can obtain easily with no damage to the student. We just administer  anonymously, unpredictably, and spontaneously any test that does not offer direct help to individual’s learning.

Useful adversity.   Thinking explicitly for the student’s benefit, however, however, we place him with an effective teacher who administers diagnostic/formative tests, and gets him on a track of instruction optimal for him.

For most people, useful adversity actually lies in a fairly narrow band at any given time although changing the level is not complicated.  Every continuum of skill implies successive points of progress. Inescapably, the operative principle  is “From the point you’re at now, move to the next.”  It’s like crossing a stream by stepping on a few boulders protruding above the water.  You don’t skip steps. Skills and knowledge are developed incrementally and assimilated in a process rather than a leap. You take a student “where he is at” and place before him tasks that he can perform with skills he already has, but that move him to a new point.

The core of such a system is arranging challenges a student can meet using existing skills with appropriate effort.  A way to understand this is through the concept of an ability periphery.

Imagine standing with your toes on the edge of a field. Out in the field are tasks of varying difficulty. The easy ones are right in front of you. Further out are those you achieve sometimes.  On the opposite edge of the field are tasks you fail at every time. Three kinds of tasks are easy, challenging, and impossible.

The middle band is particularly important and where most growth occurs, where struggle and effort pay off the most.  Some aspects of the tasks are already assimilated, and using them moves one along the continuum to expand understanding to the next level.  Think of how essential it is to know the formula before trying to do the problems, or how bewildered students are when they don’t understand the terms that must be used to analyze the scenario. Effort in the mid-range succeeds because the student knows what to do with what is already under his control. Sometimes he fails and sometimes succeeds at the current micro-step, but he’s not confused. He knows where to point his effort.

At the too-easy edge of the ability periphery, this key–pointing his effort– remains unfulfilled.  Tasks fall so far inside the reach of his competence that he can practically multi-task around  them. Quantities of instructional time in most classrooms go to listening to the teacher—easily.  Students  may follow a teacher’s words while writing notes to classmates, doodling, conversing in whispers, or transferring information from one paper to another.

Easy tests require little considered thought—which is often the explicit aim of review questions beforehand.  We want to make this coming test easy so students appear to be achieving and the teacher and school look good. Little constructive thought is demanded.

Effort we ask of students that they can perform without even giving it their full attention probably doesn’t teach them much, and also fails to sustain their interest. As soon as the teacher quits that kind of discussion, no student  hand shoots up with a question.  Nothing need be actually “taken to heart” nor “learned by heart,” which require focused effort.

At the far edge of the ability periphery are all the reasons for which schools classify students as lacking–all the wrong answers, all the test questions they should have known but didn’t, all the material taught too hastily to result in their increased competence, all the presentations they didn’t understand well enough to apply to the assignment given. Tested on this material, students predictably feel helpless. Anxious beforehand, they turn their feelings against themselves. A handful of class leaders do get it and grades compare one to another to let everyone know that they should have gotten it also.

How students perceive the meaning of their failures matters fundamentally.  But for the rare few who understand how to convert mistakes into success, most students cannot claim as their own the learning from mistakes and failures. The motivational margin is narrowest with the sub-group that concerns us.  If they have fragile resolve due to a stream of messages telling them that they are not good at this sort of thing, it takes little added evidence to convince them that school is not for them. Something in them gives way and they leave school when they can.

While calling up knowledge by taking a test deepens learning, the limitations of the test remain in circumscribed knowledge, manner of thought, and messages of inadequacy. If we value students’ well-being, we obtain generalized data in other ways than high stakes testing. If we remain alert to the genuine impact on students due to practices that serve adult needs, we will find a different way to obtain the information.

If both predictable failure and over-easy success don’t help, what’s left?

Interest is sustained best, again, by tasks in the mid-range of the periphery where effort makes the most difference. Success is so close by, so near to hand, that just by changing their focus students recognize a corresponding change in skill.  That’s the rewarding part.  Even though mistakes may occur often, students’ aspirations are in such close reach of their actual achievement that it spurs their willingness to try again, try harder, have courage, assert faith in their ability, and exert the will to continue.

Students’ faith in such a process is essential, the belief that carrying it through day by day despite error and setback moves them ahead. Doing so they can recognize in weeks and even days that they improve, and buy into the idea that the partial success they experience is not accidental but came from themselves. With steady effort, their ability periphery continually shifts its boundaries. A task impossible in one month moves to the easy edge in the next.  Once they commit to ongoing practice, their ability expands steadily.

To speed students along, all we need to do is focus them on tasks of moderate challenge—which, by the way, makes the entire Common Core enterprise unnecessary.  The problem with U.S. education has not been that we have been uncertain what to teach. The problem instead has been how. If we were poor at teaching version 3 of a dozen alternate curricula, it doesn’t help to shift to version 9 unless we know how to teach it differently.

Group-based data may alert us to where we might expect the group’s mid-range tasks to fall, which we discover by anonymous testing.  But to help a particular student, teachers employ diagnostic and formative tests to know where to point their next instruction. A teacher who cares about him as an individual accurately understands his needs by means of observation, interaction with him, and tests appropriate to the current focus of his learning effort.  The learning effort is not designed for the test, but vice versa.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request:

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at