Friday, December 27, 2013

Woes of Standardized Testing

The new Common Core education reforms bring much attention to standardized testing, but standardized test are not new to education.
To be fair, standardized testing does have some uses:
  • Pretesting.  A short standardized assessment quickly assesses if students already know material.
  • Memorized facts.  What's 7x8? Where's the cell nucleus in this diagram? Standardized tests are awesome for showing facts.
  • Comparing scores.  Comparing scores has its place, but where a student places within a class, school, state, or nation isn't as important as what student, parents, and teachers know about the student.
  • Cheap, compared to paying actual humans to double score more complex assessments.
  • Less human scoring error and bias.

Teachers and parents can use many other assessments to evaluate student progress, including: Essays; informal writing; presentations; portfolios; observations; discussions; practice problems; experiments; self assessments; reflections; and designing or creating artwork, music, or machines.  The most effective educator uses a variety of assessments varying in formality and format.
A sampling of the aforementioned assessments can foster the qualities listed below, all of which are inhibited by extensive standardized testing:
  • Teamwork / cooperation.  On a standardized test, its called cheating, but work in classrooms and work places is often done collaboratively.
  • Revision / growth.  Standardized testing gives few opportunities to learn from mistakes.  It dismisses the tremendous merit in doing work again until it is right or the best it quality can be.
  • Curiosity.  Really, is anyone inspired by a test?  Other than the small percentage of Hermione Grangers out there, tests squash curiosity.  Furthermore, the prescribed scope and sequence disallows teachers to follow student curiosity.
  • Deep understanding of content.  Standardize tests cover set material, so to be fair to students, teachers must teach all that material before the test date often resulting in breadth over depth.
  • Authentic use of material.  Instead of writing, talking, or creating to learn, students preform the same tasks over and over again to display what they have learned. Tests are not authentic learning situations, and thus do not mirror how students will utilize their learning solving real problems.
  • Multiple perspectives.  Sometimes, one right answer exists, but many challenging questions for which students must apply their knowledge and skills have many possible answers.  Extensive focus on testing teaches students to look for the right answer, even when asked to explore the possibilities.
  • Unmeasurable learning, such as appreciations, maturity, and other personal growth.  A standardized test will never measure if a teacher has challenged a student the most deeply.

Other problems with standardized testing:
  • A perfect test will never exist.  Test writers take years to write a standardized test, but even still, it will never fully be rid of all biases because by nature it can not adapt.
  • Snap shot of one day.  Maybe a student is distracted by a family situation, a cold, or the fidgety kid next to him.  Maybe a student masters the material a week, or day, or hour later.  None of this matter in the face of a standardized test.  The score is final until the next administration.  Where a classroom teacher can (and should) give student multiple opportunities to show mastery, a standardized test is limited to the few minutes the child words on that question during the test.
  • Special education concerns.  Perhaps the ultimate problem with standardization is that excludes a whole population students with legal rights tailoring education to their special needs.
  • Loss of differentiation and teacher autonomy.  Some states and districts believe the only way to beat the test is to micromanage content through textbooks aligned to the Common Core or scripted lessons.  Teachers no longer can make choices to match the needs of individual students.
  • Connections to teacher evaluations and funding.  How well students preform on one type of assessment should not have an effect on a school's funding, or a teacher's pay or job security.  Such connections only increase the anxiety and stress over tests and lead teachers to make poor teaching choices out of panic, not best practice. 
  • Emotional cost.  High stakes testing causes anxiety and stress for students, not to mention its exhausting.  Add to that the negative emotions associated with poor performance on the tests.  While teens can own responsibility for failure, students as young as Kindergarten are now testing.
  • Hypothetical data mining.  I haven't seen conclusive evidence data mining will occur with Common Core testing, but the possibility is scary.

For all these reasons, I'm happy when standardized testing and I do not cross paths.  Staying at a position that forced me to do merely teach to a test would be a test of my integrity.  I'd be forced to become Mr Keating in Dead Poet's Society: A teacher who stands up for students and true learning, but quickly becomes unemployed.

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