Thursday, March 31, 2011

Too Much Testing

Kids take a lot of tests, and there is a lot of confusion about which tests are which.

As parents we oppose high-stakes standardized tests which are used to hold teachers and schools “accountable” under the No Child Left Behind Act while providing no usable information to parents or teachers. These tests are now being proposed as a means of measuring teacher effectiveness and even determining teacher pay. When politicians and education reformers talk about “test scores” these are the scores they mean.

Just to meet the federal requirements to assess math and English, kids are typically tested all day for two weeks or more. The tests are created, administered and scored by private for-profit companies that charge state hundreds of millions of dollars.

SATs and other college entrance tests

College admissions tests like the SAT are voluntary. Students pay to register and then spend a few hours on a Saturday morning taking them. Those college bound teens who want additional preparation can purchase study guides or take private prep classes.

No college or university admits a student based solely on test scores. Grades, interviews, letters of recommendation, essays, and extra curricular activities are all part of the admissions process. In fact, today there is a movement away from even requiring these “entrance exams.”

Taking the standardized tests mandated under No Child Left Behind is not practice for the SATs. No child needs two to three weeks worth of practice every year starting at age eight to pass a college entrance exam.

The Iowa Test of Basic Skills

The Iowa Test (ITBS) is a norm-referenced test to provide a snap shot of where students are academically. The whole test takes only 90 minutes with each section taking no more than 30 minutes.

Norm-referenced tests like the ITBS are graded on a curve so that most students score in the middle somewhere. Schools, including private and religious, use these tests periodically for diagnostic purposes. This test or one like is probably what President Obama’s daughters just took. A test like this is one that many parents remember taking and finding out that as fifth graders, they were reading at a ninth grade level or something like that.

Schools can choose when and if to administer tests like the ITBS.

The NAEP aka The Nations Report Card

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is given every four years to a random sample of school by the Department of Education in order to measure long term trends (LTT). Participation in the NAEP is voluntary and does not provide data for individual students or schools. The test remains essentially the same from year to year. The NAEP takes about 90 minutes.

Classroom tests

These are the tests that teachers make and administer in class. Teachers use these tests along with in-class assignments, participation, homework, projects, research, papers, and so on, to determine a child’s grade for the semester.

We are not anti-testing.

We are against high-stakes standardized test. President Obama recently stated:

Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well.

Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

So what I want to do is -- one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.

High-stakes standardized tests don't just make education boring, they actually undermine learning. Because schools are virtually forced to emphasis test taking skills at the expense of science, social studies, art, music, and physical education, curricula are narrowed. Furthermore, the very skills needed to score well on these tests are antithetical to critical thinking. A study published in “ Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 80, 1988, entitled "Students’ Goal Orientations and Cognitive Engagement in Classroom Activities" demonstrates that students who are taught to skim, guess, and skip hard problems score much higher than those who reread passages, ask questions, carefully weigh options, and look for novel solutions. It is the latter skills that we should be trying to teach.

For decades there have been concerns that all standardized tests are culturally and socially biased. Sociologists and social psychologists have long debated the exact nature of the bias. The places where these researcher should be doing their research is in the test scoring centers themselves:

In the test-scoring centers in which I have worked, located in downtown St. Paul and a Minneapolis suburb, the workforce has been overwhelmingly white—upwards of 90 percent. Meanwhile, in many of the school districts for which these scores matter the most—where officials will determine whether schools will be shut down, or kids will be held back, or teachers fired—the vast majority are students of color. As of 2005, 80 percent of students in the nation’s twenty largest school districts were youth of color. The idea that these cultural barriers do not matter, since we are supposed to be grading all students by the same standard, seems far-fetched, to say the least. Perhaps it would be better to outsource the jobs to India, where the cultural gap might, in some ways, be smaller.

Still, some standardized testing may have a small role to play in our educational system. Today, however, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between what everyone agrees — we need to measure student progress using a number of different measures — and policies driven by corporate reformers and multimillion dollar testing companies such as Race To The Top.


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  2. It is encouraging to see others speaking out against ineffective standardized testing. Keep up the great work!

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