Sunday, November 30, 2014

Standardized tests: The good, the bad...

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's Dumbing Down America. One of his proposed solutions is to declare a 3-year moratorium on statewide standardized testing. This moratorium broadly overlaps with the switch to the Common Core, and certainly the early states that have switched to new tests based on the Common Core have seen pass rates plummet in a way that requires a strong stomach to deal with. Not all politicians have strong stomachs. There is a very real risk that efforts to raise standards will completely backfire.

On top of that, of course, there are the usual arguments against standardized testing. It wastes gifted kids' time. I know this personally; back in high school I had to lobby to be exempt from my 10th grade level test since it was given at the same time as my calculus class. I didn't think it behooved me to miss 4 days of actually learning something to be tested on something I'd learned 3 years before. People teach to the test, and so forth.

I know all this, yet I have mixed feelings about moving away from testing, since it is the most visible aspect of the school accountability revolution. Many of the NCLB tests were watered down. That is true. But in states that chose to make them difficult, passing rates truly do show something. Take Massachusetts, where the MCAS is pretty comparable to the various international benchmarks. Some charter schools (e.g. Excel) have made a point of getting pretty close to 100% pass rates, and publicizing their scores. Are teachers teaching to the test? Perhaps, but since it's high level material that kids should be learning -- and in many states are not -- there's nothing wrong with that.

In the absence of clear metrics, it's easy for people to judge schools on the wrong things. The teachers are nice, decorate their classrooms well, and care about the kids. That's all wonderful, but if the kids can't read and do quantitative analysis well enough to go on to college or well-paid careers, caring alone is insufficient.

I'm not sure that the answer to bad tests is to stop testing. It's to change the philosophy of assessment to something more frequent, with immediate feedback, and without ceilings (so it doesn't waste gifted kids' time). Tests that can show how individual students progress over a year are quite helpful for evaluating what kids are learning, and keep teachers from being penalized for winding up with a class of kids who don't come in as prepared as others. Given that most assessments are moving online, this certainly seems like it should be possible. If a moratorium would end with us getting there after 3 years, that would be a good thing. But it's important not to confuse the fact that accountability is often unpopular with what is actually good for kids (gifted and otherwise).

1 comment:

Mom2two said...

The state where my children attend public school went to state testing where they gave more frequent tests in the hopes to show progress and make it more meaningful. My gifted DS13 who started off with one of the highest scores at the beginning of the year in Algebra II, could not show progress as he already was at the top. The teacher posted on her classroom wall those who progressed throughout the year and gave a treat for those who showed progress. My son was not on that wall and didn't get the treat. How was he to show progress if he was at the top already? I have heard of other teachers who tell their gifted students to bomb the tests so they can have everyone show progress. How is this helping students? Teachers are under extreme pressure by the state to have their students show improvement. Their evaluations depend on it. How is that helping students or teachers? Now my state is switching to one new test this spring due to Common Core. Teachers have been told to expect low scores. Why can't teachers just be held accountable to teach the standards given? They already have quarterly exams in DS13's high school. So this just adds more testing to the additional beginning and end of the year SMI and SRI tests. I have not calculated the hours of testing, but I'd much rather have my child learning something new instead of providing my state with data that gets reported to the Federal government to prove how their money is being spent.