Once upon a time, a teacher would teach American History. On exams, students would be asked questions about American history. Testing was straightforward and needed little discussion.

Notice Testing in Progress Do Not DisturbIn the modern era, however, content is disparaged and facts are scorned. The goal, seemingly, is to keep kids busy but to teach as little as possible.

The big problem is, how do you design exams when the teacher hasn’t taught much, the kids don’t know much, and there is little actual knowledge that the school intends the children to retain?

In this fact-free world, what would a valid examination look like?  

At this moment, thousands of the smartest people in education are sitting around tables trying to design “authentic assessment.” Experts must somehow “align” testing with diminished content. Professors of education must prepare a testing regime which continues through the year. But finally nothing very substantial is actually taught or tested. 

Aligning a triangle with a circle is difficult. Aligning a triangle with smoke rings is converging on impossible. What’s the answer? 

Hype and self-congratulation, for starters.

Be ready. You are going to hear such a tsunami of claims about the new assessments and how they are so perfectly aligned. You will feel that you’re in Biblical times and that God has once again written his wishes on slabs of rock.

Here’s how the plot has so far unfolded. The first order of business is to shift emphasis from what students know to what they know how to do (or what they feel). In schools 100 years ago, it was assumed that you knew how to sharpen a pencil, go to the library, use a dictionary, write an essay, engage in research, or tackle a science project. These were tools that allowed you to do the actual work. Not worth talking about.  

The trick now is to turn the game upside down. What students know is fading into irrelevance. What they know how to do is what matters.  What process, what procedure, what activity, can you be tested on?

More and more the emphasis is on such questions as: Can you work with others? Can you be creative? Can you compare and contrast two objects? (That’s called critical thinking.) Can you network? Can you use the internet? Can you prepare a PowerPoint presentation? Ergo, schools must devise tests that measure those things. That’s called alignment.

You won’t be asked questions about the Civil War or any actual war. You might be asked about a theoretical war.  For example, you might be asked for suggestions on Civil Defense and protecting the water supply. How would you set about preparing a report? 

All the way back in John Dewey’s time, the Education Establishment wanted to give more importance to “activities.”  By mid-20th century, the emphasis was on real-life skills. At that point things were still easy for the Education Establishment. They taught you how to use the subway to go to work. On the exam they would ask you how you might go to work. Things were still aligned!  

The problem is that the parents, colleges, and employers kept insisting that children learn knowledge. Schools were put in the position of pretending to teach something, anything.

We are moving toward the Common Core Curriculum. You will hear many pretentious claims of higher “standards.” Stating a hifalutin standard does not mean anyone actually reaches it. Meanwhile, there is the urgent need to create tests that will make it seem as though traditional educational patterns are being replaced by something better.

The cry, again and again, is for “authentic assessment.” Experts must develop ingenious new tests to measure the wonderful new things we are teaching. No one is going to admit how very little that is. Educators, the ones who expect to be promoted in any case, will not let that thought into their heads. They will insist that we have entered a new era. In a way they are right.

How will you sort out what is really happening? Easy.

Look in the Yellow Pages. You can probably find hundreds of schools. Beauty. Driving. Bartending. Martial arts. Flower arranging. Acupuncture. Investing. Nursing. Painting. Photography. Language. Mountain climbing. Swimming. Juggling. Acting. In a big city there might be a hundred different kinds of schools. In one important way they are identical.

Every real school possesses a body of knowledge, which it teaches to students. Along the way the students are tested. At the end of the course, students earn a certificate stating that they now possess that body of knowledge. If they don’t, they can sue. That’s the paradigm we’re losing. The Education Establishment hates this paradigm.

What’s happening is close to a scam. All this chatter about alignment tells you that the public schools are not serious about teaching content. If they were, the old tests would work fine. We need new assessments because something new is going on. You might read a list of things that are taught. Look closely. They will all be attitudes and activities. You will not see a name, date, place, or fact. That’s how you know that it’s not a real school as traditionally understood.

When public schools are again teaching a body of knowledge, they’ll be real schools. You’ll hear no talk of alignment or authentic assessment. Until then, they’ll be faking it. 

Bruce Deitrick Price deconstructs theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.