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Monday, July 19, 2004

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead - all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.
Michel Foucault,  Discipline and Punish 
There is an aspect of the Bush administration’s conservatism that has not often enough been scrutinized: its attachment to the engineering achievements of the late nineteenth century. Hence its love affair with the internal combustion engine, the coal burning power plant, and the test.
Bush naïve fondness for testing is like a man who judges the success of his dentist by the amount of pain the man inflicts.  From what we know of Bush’s academic career, he was never a good taker of tests. He took away from that experience a certain awe of them. Tests, in his mind, are powerful idols that must be placated. If you placate them with enough sacrifice, you receive a good grade. And if you receive a good grade, you must have learned something. Given this chain of reasoning, it is no wonder that his educational initiative is perhaps the most concentrated expression of testmania in American history.
LI is, on the contrary, an old skeptic of tests. We have taught classes, given tests, and graded them. Indeed, usually our grades did correspond with our intuitions about the relative merits of our students – their grasp of the subject, their willingness to work, and their acquaintance with the elements of English grammar. However, as an instrument for assessing learning, we find testing highly suspect. Like all assessments of human performance, its advocates like to cast over it the aura of objective measurement. But because assessment is embedded in social activity, the measurement, here, inevitably effects the thing measured. While the cloth is indifferent to the ruler the seamstress lays over it to cut off a given length, humans are not at all indifferent to measurements that will reward or punish them, and will change their behavior accordingly. Teaching the test instead of teaching, the numbers achieved by American kids may go up, but the quality of what they learn will certainly go down. This, we think, makes testmania a disaster for U.S. education.
That disaster emerges from two things: the qualitative change brought about in the social nature of knowledge from the quantitative change in knowledge itself, which necessitates that shedding of a context of schooling adapted for the assembly line rather than the network; and the nature of the test itself, as a disciplinary, rather than a learning, tool, as it has developed in the American classroom.
More later. 

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