Who wouldn’t be excited with high test scores?

Regular readers of my blog are aware of my attitude to didactic top-down, content and assessment driven methods of schooling students to become machines regurgitating meaningless facts on command. A bit of push and shove it in and belch it out.  For those of you who weren’t aware – now you are!

I probably should apologise for my indecorous description as I’m usually a little more temperate in the way I express my views, but I won’t as that is how I am feeling about it at the moment. The authorities who have the power to make the changes necessary are so caught up in their own murky visions that they fail to see either effects or solutions. Every time I read another report of test scores or hear of another child damaged by a faulty system my frustration grows.  It becomes one of those hysteria blossoming days.


A few moments ago I read a post titled “Vietnam Wallops US on PISA. Vietnamese educators belittle value of PISA” on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Ravitch is an education historian.

As the title suggests, Vietnamese fifteen year old students did better than their US, UK and most other EU counterparts in the 2012 PISA tests, ranking 12th out of 76. What I found interesting about the article was not the results but the attitude of Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Education and Training. His view that the tests don’t reflect students’ overall competence, reminded me of a letter, shared in my previous post, written by teachers to students sitting the national tests last week in Australia. (PISA are international tests).

In the article referred to by Ravitch, Dr Giap Van Duong was reported as making reference to UNESCO’s four pillars of learning: Learning to know, Learning to do, Learning to be and Learning to live together. His opined that PISA addresses only the first pillar, and in only a limited way. He said that while Vietnamese students did well on the tests, “many … students fail to land a job after graduation. (and that when) they study overseas, many have difficulties in meeting the requirements of advanced education systems like team-work, problem solving and creativity”. Perhaps they are not “out of basement ready” as described by Yong Zhao.

Duong said that the reason Vietnamese students do well on the tests is because the “The whole system operates to serve only one purpose: exams.”

Duong’s admission that Vietnamese students lack the ability to work in teams, to problem solve and to think creatively reiterates the fears of many teachers who are  ruled by expectations of high test results and provided little opportunity to inspire learning, which surely remains the real (if neglected) purpose of education. Counterbalancing one’s philosophy with an employer’s expectations sometimes seems like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills is talking about rocks and hard places. But Charli knows that good can often spring from those seemingly hard places through making connections. She has challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows a hard place and a connection.

It is connections that are most important in my two main roles in life: parent and teacher. Neither is easy and neither will result in much good without making connections. I often worry about things I have said and the affect they may have had on others. To be truthful, occasionally it even keeps me awake at night. While I would rather think of my words and actions creating a positive ripple, there is no guarantee that, even when delivered with my best intentions, they won’t do harm.

Trevor Pilgrim shared a quote which puts it this way:


In his article Pilgrim says,

“teachers have (the power) to develop their students and shape their future lives.  The power to turn them on or off academically, stimulate or dampen their minds and heighten or destroy their engagement and intellectual curiosity.”

Scary stuff!

At about the same time I read an article that said that the influence of teachers is not as great as one might think; that socio-economic status, amongst other things, is more important. While I am happy with the thought of having a positive effect, I definitely do not wish to ruin anyone’s life so am happy to know that my influence is not be the most important to the lives of my students.

For this challenge of Charli’s I am back thinking about Marnie’s art teacher and the hard place she found herself in when she saw the brown muddy mess that Marnie seemed to have made of her paints. That she must respond is a given; but how? Whatever she says will probably have a lasting impact so she must ensure that her response is appropriate. While her initial instinct is to express disappointment, she maintains her professional composure and delays commenting until she has thought it through.

Here is my response:


She glanced at the child, usually so eager to please, and knew this was no ordinary day.

Downcast and avoiding eye contact, the child trembled. Her instinct was to reach out with comfort to soothe the hurt; but stopped. Any touch could end her career. What to say? Brown earth/brown rocks? would ignore and trivialise the pain. Any talk now would be insensitive with other ears listening. Any word could unravel the relationship built up over time. Nothing would harm more than doing nothing. Her steps moved her body away but her heart and mind stayed; feeling, thinking.

 Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction

22 thoughts on “Who wouldn’t be excited with high test scores?

  1. Bec

    Hi Nor, sorry for being late to this. I’ve been a bit lost – as you know – quantifying students’ work. What a traitorous Colvin I am! The FF is very powerful, and sad. I can understand why the teacher just walked away. But I also can imagine how anything said, even if it was the “wrong” thing might be better than nothing. It makes me think of this short ‘what I’m really thinking’ piece on The Guardian about a mother with cancer – all the other mothers avert eye contact, probably because it seems too hard to know what to say. But that just makes things harder:


    I imagine everyone has been in a situation where nothing seems to be the right thing to say, but there is a silence waiting to be filled. And it seems an unfair burden on the teacher to not only know how to teach, but how to also help and support people when they’re so vulnerable (i.e. children) and open to influence in terms of their self-worth and understandings of the world. We’re lucky the teachers sign up for it at all, and lucky that those who do are largely a bunch with big hearts. But like you say you can stay awake at night sometimes, I imagine many other teachers by their nature carry heavily their responsibilities.


    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thank you for you lovely, thoughtful comment as usual. There is no need to apologize for not popping in every day or post. You have other things to do, other priorities. I love hearing from you when you have time.
      Thanks for your comment on the flash, and on teaching, and on the importance of saying something when “there is a silence waiting to be filled”. What a beautiful expression. Sometimes that silence speaks louder than words. Like the silence experienced by the mother with cancer. It is difficult to know what to say, and I’ve learned from experience that there is no ‘right’ thing; but making eye contact and exchanging a smile is a great start.:)


  2. Rebecca Patajac

    I loved your flash piece.
    I worked as a trainee at a school for Autism and I understand wholeheartedly the issues of keeping your distance from students. Children sometimes just need that physical touch to process fully that you are there to support them, but people are so wary and protective nowadays that it has lead to them taking drastic measures against every professional in a child’s life, innocent or not.
    It’s a very hard place to be in, and I pray each time you are faced with a similar situation that there is another way for you to help and that the child finds the strength to trust in you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Rebecca. I very much appreciate your understanding and support. It has definitely become more difficult over the years. Children come for a hug and we must keep our hands at our sides. It feels cold but, as you say, people are suing over anything, real or imagined. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah Brentyn

    Pfft! Statistics and rankings… They never show the whole picture.
    Great flash. I know that feeling. You showed it well with the hesitation and need to do something. Definitely between a rock and a hard place.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sacha Black

    Interesting, my friend went and taught English in China (not Vietnam but close) and she said she has never experienced anything like it before. The kids were beyond disciplined, she said that their ability to answer questions related to courses they were learning was unrivalled. BUT, if she asked them something more general knowledge oriented or something that required them to… you know, use their brain or some kind of innovation, then they were left stumped. Sad really. What I find interesting is the disconnect between the fact LOTS of new technology and intelligence comes out of China – clearly this takes innovation and originality and thinking for themselves – but this is a total disconnect – where or more to the point when do they develop this ability?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Hard Places « Carrot Ranch Communications

  6. TanGental

    You put it so well and a little anger is never misplaced when on such an important topic. The current balance is skewed in favour of statistics over the holistic approach – as the theme of the moment, connections, demands we should be looking at how we connect the how and what and when and by whom we teach with the how and what and who the pupils are likely to become – if we are being results driven then why oh why is it a grade on a paper and not the complete person and their total role in their society that we are measuring – the outcome is not a grade point average; it’s a person. People aren’t average or uniform or reducible to a number. Keep railing against the unfairness, keep poking your stick through the fencing around the errant stupidity, Norah. It may seem useless but it only takes one acorn to start a forest; you may not live to see it grow but you can be assured it will grow.
    And the depth of your flash, the philosophy of a caring teacher captured in 99 words – WOW!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Geoff. I love your description of the educative process, the result of which should be a person! My! If only those wielding the sticks would realise that! Thank you for encouraging me to keep wielding mine. I probably don’t need a lot (of encouragement), but a little helps a lot! (No tautology intended there. :))
      I’m pleased you enjoyed my flash. I was worried that I hadn’t progressed the story far. I may need a few more flashes before the flash of inspiration reaches the teacher, or me! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Annecdotist

    I love your righteous anger, Norah, and wonder where it will take you and your blog readers! I think the Vietnamese education Minister is very brave to acknowledge that these high scores aren’t necessarily a good thing – not so easy for a politician to admit.
    Yes, and the flash is great, there can be a tendency for us to hurry and fix things, even when we don’t understand what’s wrong (and presumably that’s part of what the politicians are doing with the tests) it can take a lot of courage to step back and think, especially in a busy classroom with lots of conflicting demands. Maybe she won’t have the right response to Marnie today, but if she can keep her in mind might get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Anne. Now I’m concerned about where you think my anger might take me! It is useless anger though. I can’t do much with it.
      However the attitude of the Vietnamese deputy education minister is interesting in that one would consider him to be in a position to make changes. His displeasure should not remain useless.
      I think the teacher should have studied psychology with you. Maybe then she’d know how to respond. We did behavioural psychology when I went to college. I never liked it much. I’m not sure that it would be of much use to the teacher in dealing with Marnie.


      1. Annecdotist

        Ha, I wish I could see into my crystal ball where your anger is going – on the other hand, I’m enjoying not knowing. But I share your frustration when the system seems so wrong.
        I think behavioural psychology is useful in demonstrating different ways we can shape behaviour, but probably another frustration when it’s presented as all there is, which was probably the case in its heyday. Actually, I think what Marnie’s teacher needs is a non-judgemental supportive reflective space in which she can process her own responses and come up with an answer that works for her, rather than someone dictating what she should do on the basis of theory. But I imagine there isn’t much room for that kind of supervision within teaching?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Norah Post author

          Hmm. Thanks Anne. I guess what I didn’t like about behavioural psychology was that it seemed to say that if you pushed button A everyone would react the same way. At the time (and still now) I believed (hoped) that we were able to make our own choices, that we were individuals and may react in different ways. I guess as I’ve grown older I still believe (hope) that, but realise that we are all more alike than I really want to believe.
          I like your suggestion of a ‘non-judgmental supportive reflective space in which she can process her own responses’. That would be wonderful. I do fear though that Marnie may need some sort of response before they part company after the lesson, so she lacks the luxury of both space and time. The response may not conclude in that first talk, but the channels for communication must remain open, and it is a good opportunity to delve a little into what troubles Marnie. It is obviously deeper than something that can be healed in art classes once a week. I think the teacher needs to respond now, and then seek guidance from someone with more expertise who can support her and Marnie. Unfortunately there has never been a great deal of that kind of supervision or support and most teachers have very little training and ongoing professional development in that area unless they particularly seek it out for themselves. I can’t remember how much psychology I did at college (it’s too long ago) but it may have been three semesters at the most. I remember the behavioural psychology I mentioned before and educational psychology, and I’m not sure of anything else. I don’t know if things are different for teachers these days but it seems the need for them to be psychologists, social workers and substitute parents has increased.
          Thanks for helping me direct my story. 🙂


  8. Charli Mills

    Here the schools are so caught up on test scores when children need so much more than learning to know. Then we get to your flash and read all that the teacher has to contemplate — over one child, yet she sees many like this in her career. Environmental factors such as socio-economic status and what goes on at home do impact children, yet a teacher can add to the burden or alleviate it. Yet we want teachers to focus on test scores? Ah, I feel your pain and frustration, expressed in your post and flash.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. macjam47

    Thank you for sharing this. I have long felt there is too much emphasis on testing, and “teaching to the test” in our schools here in the US. It is common knowledge that though teachers are not supposed to teach what is needed for the tests, in fact, that is just what they do. The curriculum currently taught has evolved to a great degree to be designed to prepare for the test. This is what happens when legislators mandate testing, instead of leaving education to the educators.

    Liked by 1 person


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