The Descriptive Review of the Child

K-12 Testing

From Another Angle: Children’s Strengths and School Standards, by Margaret Himley with Patricia Carini, explains how teachers engage in a “descriptive review of the child” to help them understand a particular student as a learner. The review process, developed at the Prospect Center, also enables teachers to deepen their understanding of teaching and of schools, and it leads to recommendations for action.


The book combines accounts of reviews conducted in urban schools serving low-income children, mostly of color, with essays about the process. A review begins with planning by the presenting teacher and a review session chair. The teacher gathers and organizes the information on the multiple aspects of the child to be presented around a focusing question for the discussion. During the review, the teacher presents the child and the issues with which the teacher is grappling. The first stage of discussion is limited to clarifying questions and raising new issues but remains descriptive rather than evaluative. Participants then move to recommendations.


The process helps the presenting teacher as well as the other participants: “Each time I participate in a review, another layer is added to my understanding of children and classrooms in general,” explains teacher Rhoda Kanevsky.


Throughout the chapters, the damage done by standardized testing to children is repeatedly demonstrated. Tests reduce children to numbers based on thin, one-time evidence of a narrow range of learning, while the purpose of the review “is to make the whole child visible.” The reduction to numbers produces anonymity and invisibility, the book charges, and attacks the dignity of children and teachers. Rather than simplifying in order to categorize, the review explores complexity in order for teachers to better work with real children in real classrooms. Rather than fixating on raising test scores, teachers use the knowledge gained in the reviews to improve their teaching practices. Rather than embracing the illusory “objectivity” of tests, the review process values the necessarily subjective relationships among students and teachers.


A chapter on “whole school inquiry” opens up the question of how that process can be used to improve a school, providing a stark contrast with test-driven “accountability.” Focusing on one alternative public elementary schools in New York City, the chapter describes how the school used a process similar to the Descriptive Review to confront complex issues such as ensuring both heterogeneity and equity, exemplified in concrete concerns such as grouping students for math instruction.


The deep and rich understanding of a child which comes from review sessions should be part of the regular work experience of teachers as the inquiry process is itself powerful professional development. Such process can readily be incorporated into authentic accountability plans such as that of the Mass. Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, but co-exist at best uneasily with test-dominated accountability practices. Thus, efforts to spread valuable practices such as the reviews must both educate educators and the public as to their value and battle the dominance of standardized testing.


• Teachers College Press, 2000; $24.95 paper
• Prospect web site;
• CARE plan is at
• The descriptive review is also discussed in Authentic Assessment in Action (see Examiner, Fall 1995 and order form p. 15 )