Testing I Can Believe In

Shael Polakow-Suransky, who comes in with Cathleen Black at New York Public Schools, talks testing:

"Until we start seeing assessments that ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we're measuring are basic skills," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said in an interview...

Mr. Polakow-Suransky acknowledges that the tests are imperfect, but says they are a necessary measurement tool. "To put it very simply," he said, "how do you know that the kids are learning?" 

In 2004, Mr. Nadelstern made him his deputy in the Office of New Schools, and Mr. Polakow-Suransky moved on to become chief academic officer and a deputy chancellor overseeing instruction before becoming chief accountability officer in 2009. 

He has also been in charge of the city's roll-out of the new national standards for what students should learn in English and math each year from kindergarten through high school, with more emphasis on writing and critical thinking. That is where the new tests would come in. 

He has been working with officials from New York and other states to create a new kind of testing that would include essays, classroom projects and multiple-choice exams, and that would be administered in stages, perhaps at four times during the year. 

He described one prototype question. Students would be asked to calculate the diameter that a straw needs to fit through a juice box's hole, then write to a juice box manufacturer whose straws keep getting stuck in the hole to explain why its diameter should be changed. "It's a ninth-grade problem that involves geometry and algebra in an unfamiliar context," and tests several skills at once, he said.

This is rather heartening. I was talking to Samori yesterday about something he did to another student last week (I'm not saying what because, at this point, he's really embarrassed, as he should be). Anyway, I was asking him why he thought it was wrong, and he basically was repeating back to me what I'd told him. After a bit, I cut him off and told him that he needs to work to a point where he can articulate his own moral standards in his own terms, as opposed to my terms. 

The bottom line, is I want him to think critically about morality--and everything else. My hope has always been that the public schools would support that kind of critical thinking. We found that in elementary but I'm worried about middle school. It's good to see someone coming in who sees testing in that way, who leaves room for critical and creative--and even practical--thinking.

Knowledge as an abstraction killed me in school.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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