I got an e-mail from a teacher who has to give weekly tests to his classes. He asked me what I thought about this requirement. I got the sense that he was frustrated by the requirement.

To move against the tide of more and more testing, there is not much we can do as individuals. But we can supplement the tests we are required to give by having students record what they say and transcribe what they say and transcribe what we say. When a student writes “I walk faster than baby walk” after a teacher says “I can walk faster than a baby can walk” the teacher sees what needs to be practiced. Ditto when the same student writes “The plain can fly faster than bird fly” after the teacher says “A plane can fly faster than a bird can fly.” The student can see the corrections in his notebook. On another day when the patterns are practiced again all the students can compare what they wrote previously and see the degree of progress they are making.

This is less time consuming than looking through all the items on tests and pointing out the mistakes students make. Scores are popular in many areas of life outside of the world of testing. Salaries of players on sports teams are determined by their scores. People who sell stocks get raises if the stocks they select do well.  So it is easy to see why tests are thought to be useful in learning as well.

I think that in all areas a focus just on numbers is dangerous. We have experienced the ways that those in financial institutions manipulated numbers. And in Australia a scandal has just been uncovered indicating that members of all sorts of sports teams have been taking drugs to enhance their performance for years.

Paul Tough, a New York Times reporter has just had a book published called How Children Succedd: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). He followed students with very high test scores in high school during their college years.  Only 20 percent of the students he followed graduated from college. They had come from poor neighborhoods with little family support. But they did well on tests because of extra work on the part of their teachers and a wider range of activities than usually are available in inner city schools. But their test scores accounted for only about 1/3 of success. The title of his book indicates the other qualities that are important for success.

Just as I finished reading and pondering about the review of Tough’s book, which contains ideas I have advocated for decades without the type of evidence that he provides, I read an obituary of Alex Comfort. (I say obituary but since Comfort died in 2000 the piece is more a commentary.) At any rate, Matthew Sweet ,who wrote the comments, says that Comfort is unfortunately known best for his The Joy of Sex. He wrote on a wide range of topics: Authority and Delinquency, Art and Social Responsibility, Writings against Power and Death, to name a few. He wrote six novels, a handful of plays, studies of political corruption, medical ethics, Eastern philosophy, etc.

Comfort said that he wrote on this wide range of topics because of a belief in freedom from convention and the evil of all repression. I see tests as a form of repression and I believe that they have the potential to enforce convention rather than free us from convention. Comfort frequently said during his life that “bloody-mindedness was the greatest human virtue.” Tests cannot measure this virtue nor any other virtues. But as we saw with the financial scandals and the drug scandals in the world of sport, and the results of Tough’s book on inner city students, character, curiosity and the freedom to question everything are more important. Test scores can easily divert us from other much more important values such as how we relate to each other, respect others and understand differences to name a values that we fortunately cannot reduce to test scores.