…. don’t ask me the question.
A former community college student of mine is doing some work for an Ed. class and sent out a call for answers to some of his questions about standardized tests. Here’s what he got back from me:
Are standardized tests accurate examinations of a student’s (STUDENTS’) knowledge? (I can’t help it, N; I’m going to correct the grammar in your questions. Deal with it.)
No, standardized tests are not accurate examinations of students’ knowledge. Standardized tests, by their very nature, target narrow and specific slices of student capacity. Standardized tests may be able to measure how well a student can retrieve information from a given text, for example, or how well they can answer a math question, but they cannot take into account a student’s creativity, problem-solving, or cooperative skills. Because standardized tests are narrow in their scope, they can’t measure the ability of a student to make meaningful connections between, say, an historical event and a novel, or to apply a formula from math class to solve a physics problem, or to appreciate beauty in a poem or a work of art. In short, the things standardized tests measure are not the things that we claim to value in our students, and they are certainly not an indication of how competent the students’ teachers are.
1. Do you feel standardized tests are important to schools (QUESTION MARK) why (CAPITAL W) or why not?
I do not feel that standardized tests are important to schools; or, rather, I feel they SHOULDN’T be. The facts on the ground say that standardized tests ARE important to schools; the results of standardized tests are being used to determine things like school performance (and, by extension, funding) and are now starting to be used to determine teacher quality (and whether or not teachers get to keep their jobs). Schools have been shut down – or taken over – because of poor student performance on standardized tests, and these tests have historically been used to rate schools and determine the kinds of federal funding they’d receive (which makes exactly ZERO sense to me; the schools that do well are rewarded and the schools that do poorly are punished. The reverse should be the case; schools with lower test scores should be receiving more support, not less). So, perhaps you should reword your question. ARE standardized tests important to schools? In the current scheme of things, yes; they are vitally important – sometimes to the very existence of the school. SHOULD they be important? Absolutely not.
2. Do you feel that students try on the standardized tests (QUESTION MARK) why (CAPITAL W) or why not?
The students who care about such things will try their best on standardized tests, as they try their best for the rest of the work they’re asked to do. The students who do not care about such things won’t. The really smart students – the ones who really care about their work but who recognize that the standardized tests don’t affect their GPA, or who pick up on their teachers’ or parents’ disdain for the uselessness of the tests – may or may not bother.
When I was teaching high school, I was honest with my students. They had to take the NECAP – we had no say in that matter – and I made sure they understood how I felt about the tests. I also told them, however, that the results of the tests were going to go a long way to determining the kind of rating that their school received and that the rating would determine whether a) the school received funding or b) the school would be put on a “watch list” for not making “ADP” or “adequate yearly progress.” They understood that the stakes were high for their school, though not necessarily for them as individual students. In the three years I taught at the school, the reading and writing portion of the NECAPs went up steadily, so I know that a) I prepared my students well for the tests (we had test-specific classes in the two weeks leading up to the test date) and b) the students took them seriously enough to do well. Let’s not kid ourselves, though; we know for sure that there are some students who fill in bubbles to make a pattern and really don’t care about the results of the tests (and, really, why SHOULD they?).
3. Do you think there should be another method to test the knowledge of the student (QUESTION MARK) why (CAPITAL W) or why not?
There ARE other methods to test students’ knowledge. Teachers implement these assessments literally every day. Essays and projects and portfolios and reflections and presentations and speeches and experiments and, and, and…. The question I think you’re asking is perhaps better posed as “should there be another way of proving to politicians that all students know the same thing?”
Look, the problem that we’re running into here is twofold. The first, of course, is the intrusion of politics into education. This is a complex and difficult thing to unravel because it deals with things like grandstanding (politicians claiming loudly that our schools are a shambles and “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!” but having no idea whether what they’re saying is true nor how to address whatever problems may actually exist), the vilification of teachers (“our kids are coming out of school without basic knowledge of important things, therefore the teachers must be at fault!”), and a complete hypocrisy on the part of a society that SAYS it values education and then guts funding, attacks curriculum (google “Texas textbooks” to see just a sample of what I mean here), trashes teachers, and refuses to do anything to address the despicable conditions of our schools (we’re MORE than happy to build new prisons, but bonds to build new schools are almost universally defeated). Add to that the incursion of interests that want to privatize schools (look into the motivations behind the GOP to push school vouchers, charter schools, and homeschooling movements to see what I mean here) and you’ve got a system under attack.
Our kids are NOT stupid. They are NOT failing school because they can’t learn or because their teachers are bad. They’re doing poorly because many of them come from poverty (a hungry kid can’t learn – see Maslow’s hierarchy). Their home lives are unstable; their parents can’t find work (or work two or more jobs, or THEY work after school because they have to). They’re doing poorly because they’re stuffed into overcrowded classroom with overworked (and under-paid) teachers who are expected to meet the needs of these diverse kids with little or no support and few if any materials. They’re doing poorly because they’re expected to learn the SAME thing at the SAME time to the SAME degree and demonstrate that knowledge using the SAME assessments, and they recognize that that’s bullshit dehumanization and they don’t want to play along. They’re doing poorly because, in our zeal to “achieve” to the test (and our desperate need to balance our ever-diminishing budgets), we’ve done away with art classes and music classes and gym classes and home economics classes and shop classes and have completely abandoned EVERYTHING we know about child and adolescent development in a desperate attempt to do the best we can under the conditions in which we’ve been forced.
I have a LOT more to say about this, but I suspect this may already be more than you need. Feel free to hit me up with questions or points of clarification.