Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Mirror of Testing

The Mirror of Erised

                “So,” said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, “you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.”
                “I didn’t know it was called that, sir.”
                “But I expect you’ve realized by now what it does?” . . .
                “It shows us what we want . . . whatever we want . . .”
                “Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts . . . However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what is shows is real . . . .”
                                                                      --J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Common Core testing, in whatever flavor it comes, is the Mirror of Erised as described by J.K. Rowling in the first book of her brilliant fantasy series that singlehandedly revived an interest in reading among middle and high school youth.

It is that time of year. The tests are drawing to a close and soon results will be released by the testing consortiums through the states that sponsor them. Already Florida has the 3rd grade reading results and has made them public.

Everyone who looks into the results sees something different—the same as Harry saw his lost and dead family, Ron saw himself the most successful member of his family, and Dumbledore saw himself with a pair of socks (he was lying).

What everyone sees is the desire of their hearts—what they want the tests to say. Everyone sees something different.

The State Board of Education looks into the Mirror of Testing and sees vindication for their policies. “It’s working!” is the usual narrative of the early summer press releases.

Legislators look into the Mirror and see failing public schools and teachers rotten to the core. They draft new legislation to continue their drive to privatize all education in the state.

Investors look into the Mirror and see opportunities to profit from the garnering of public school tax dollars.

Opt-Out parents look into the Mirror and see the abuse of their children through over-testing and confusing schoolwork that cause their children to burst into tears and declare, “I hate school!”

Superintendents look into the Mirror and see many things: propaganda for the press that their reforms are working, bad teachers who must be punished over Value-Added Measurements, and schools in danger of takeover by the state.

The American Statistical Association looks into the Mirror and sees an invalid use of statistical measurements and their profession through the adoption of Value-Added Models to rank teachers.

Bill Gates looks into the Mirror and sees the failure of every improvement idea he has had. But he won’t stop trying because he also sees every child parked in front of a Microsoft computer overseen by a teaching robot.

Eli Broad looks into the Mirror and sees all the superintendents dancing on his puppet strings as well as a certain presidential candidate.

Teachers look into the Mirror and see the death of their profession.

Principals look into the Mirror and see themselves in agony: chomped at from above and below, they have no job protection. If the Mirror does not return the needed results, they are fired.

Arne Duncan looks into the Mirror and sees . . . Moms to insult.

John King looks into the Mirror and sees a Congress with no power. (Better look again, John.)

“The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into the mirror and see himself . . .”

J.E.B. Bush would look into the Mirror and see himself. He thinks his reforms are perfect.

“Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real . . . .”

The Mirror of Testing: does it show what is real? It is driving all of us mad.

It shows us nothing more or less than how well students pass the test. It does not give us knowledge or truth about what students have really learned or what they really know.

This year’s Algebra 2 test: a student calls me over. He is really bright. He pays no attention to my teaching, preferring to read the book and solve the problems on his own. He gets everything correct on the first go. “The question says to enter my solution. Do I put in ‘y equals’ and my answer? Or only my answer?”

I looked at the problem. I had no idea either. With a sad smile, I told him I wasn’t allowed to give him that help. First of all, because I didn’t have a clue either of what was supposed to be entered, but also because if I had said something, I could be accused of cluing the answer to a student.

“This Mirror gives us neither knowledge nor truth.”


“Sir, Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?  . . . What do you see when you look in the mirror?”

I see myself finding the Philosopher’s Stone because “only one who wanted to FIND the Stone—find it, but not use it—would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life.”

Testing offers the promise of a long, prosperous life but all it brings is unendurable agony to students, who find neither success nor college/career readiness in it. I want to find the source of this nonsense, but not use it; rather, I would destroy it.