Daily Archives: November 30, 2011

Is Standardized Testing The Problem?

My colleagues in the teaching profession love love love to rail against standardized tests. We hold these tests in special contempt, focusing all our hatred for them. Like the typical cartoon villain, they are easy to hate.

I’m somewhat contrarian in my outlook on standardized tests, however. I sympathize with some of my colleagues’ concerns and agree with them and the unions that there’s much about the current standardized testing focus that’s broken and in need of fixing. Where I part company with them is that I do not think the focus is the boogeyman we make it out to be. Sure, we should focus on other things, but the bottom line problem with public ed in America is much deeper.

I had a conversation with a fellow teacher after Thanksgiving dinner about our frustrations with public education in America. Predictably, the conversation quickly bent towards standardized tests, and out came the vitriol. I’ve heard the arguments and assertions about the horror of the tests so many times that I almost can recite how conversations like these go before hand with near word-for-word precision. I know all the catch phrases. That doesn’t mean my colleagues’ arguments and assertions are false…it just means they’re predictable. But I digress.

My fellow teacher held that standardized tests are responsible for the ills of American public education. She lamented that things have changed from when she was in school. Kids can no longer critically think, and that is because we “teach to the test” and do not encourage and foster critical thinking skills. In other words, our focus is too narrow—on the score from a multiple choice test that rewards rote learning, and is culturally biased to boot. Furthermore, these tests reinforce the disenfranchisement of minority groups, such as kids with learning disabilities and immigrants, that are already on the margins of our society. A kid that is an immigrant, for instance, might not pass the test—and therebye would not graduate (at least in the case of the exit exam)—not because she is “dumb,” but merely because the test is culturally biased and she does not have the background needed to be able to successfully understand the passages featured in the test.

Her solution to the problem of disenfranchisement and the loss of critical thinking skills was to eliminate the tests entirely in favor of a more “grassroots” method of assessment. She preferred a system where teachers are trusted as professionals who have the freedom to assess their students as they see fit. The current method is “too narrow,” she said. “There are many learning styles. We need assessments that reflect this. Teachers know their students best and should have the freedom to tailor assessments to their own individual classrooms.”

Lastly, why should *one* test score reflect a teacher’s performance so much, when much of what determines a student’s score (such as family life, their nutrition, access to distractions outside the classroom, etc) is out of the teacher’s control? When you are given a classroom of 40 kids where 5 of them have 5 different learning disabilities, 15 of them have horrible home lives, 8 don’t eat breakfast before they get to school, 10 of them have 3 tv’s but zero books in the home, 4 of them are addicted to some kind of substance, you have about 15 distinct learning styles in the classroom, 9 of them are alcoholic, half have some other personal issue that distracts their learning, and the other half are too zonked out on digital media to be able to focus, raising a high stakes test score can be a herculean task.

What is there to say to all that? What follows, I admit, is a very unscientific analysis. I’m not going to cite studies of teacher interviews or analyze data. I merely want to give some comments based on informal observation and limited experience. Hey, I could be wrong, though I think I’m on to something.

I gave a mixed review to her thoughts. On the one hand, there does seem to be too much focus—at least in some instances—on raising the score of one “high stakes” test. I get all that. I also get that there are a multitude of learning modalities, and assessment needs to reflect that. Thirdly, though I don’t have any studies to back this up, experience and testimony from the past tells me that yes, there has been a loss of critical thinking skills in the last 30 years or so, though I’m not quite sure my conversation partners’ era represented the “glory days” she thought it did. And lest I forget, I too am wary of being judged by a score that is heavily influenced by outside factors largely out of my control. To paraphrase C.S Lewis, it’s almost like our society has castrated, but the government still expects the geldings to be fruitful.

Where I begged to differ, though, was on the notion that the “standardized testing craze” is at the center of what’s wrong with public education. Though the testing culture should be tweaked quite a bit, it is an all-too-convenient scapegoat that teachers typically use. There are other things going on more fundamental. Consider the following.

First, I’m not so sure that emphasis on standardized test scores is responsible for the dip in critical thinking. Afterall, standardized tests have been around for quite a while…even if correlation suggested causation, they didn’t pop up suddenly at the same time public ed went down the tubes. We’ve had the SAT/ACT, the GRE, GMAT, the AP test, the bar exam, etc etc etc for a looong time. There is even a series of standardized tests that teachers themselves must pass in order to be able to teach. Though the differing high school exit exams and the state standards tests differ from all those in the degree of rigor, they are all standardized and similar in format. What’s more, for as long as these tests have been around there have been tutoring classes whose sole focus is to prepare their students to get high scores on these tests. In other words, these classes take “teaching to the test” to a different level. Kids spend YEARS taking such classes, and they often are the very definition of “a horse with blinders on” as they study for these tests. They graduate high school with flying colors, go on to success in college, and become bright stars in law, medicine, and politics. In other words, “teaching to these tests” doesn’t seem to dumb them down.

Secondly and similarly, the high stakes tests that my fellow colleagues love to criticize actually *do* test critical thinking…they just set the bar really, really low (the CA high school exit exam, for instance, which is given to students starting their sophomore year of high school, tests skills at about the 8th grade level). If you look at the passages students must read and the questions asked, you’ll see that what is required of students are such things as summarizing, paraphrasing, editing writing, revising writing, analyzing, and synthesizing. These *thinking skills,* afterall, are what the standards are all about, and the tests are tied to the standards. Those things *are* critical thinking skills! This is precisely *why* standardized tests are not the critical-thinking-eliminating-culprit the education preachers claim they are. Perhaps “teaching to the test” does make learning boring. No beef there. Perhaps boring teaching leads to less student engagement, which influences students’ ability to think critically (because they aren’t engaged in the classroom and hence exercising their minds, but instead are tuned out). But there are plenty of things that are and should be central to any classroom—like, oh, reading a book quietly, or writing in a journal—that most public ed students today consider boring, so lets be honest and not make “the test” out to be a villain it’s not.

Third, what about her concerns with disenfranchising certain minority groups? The test is culturally biased, isn’t it? Well, I don’t know. Though she wasn’t able to produce any examples when I asked, it’s not crazy to assume there’s some form of bias to some questions, so let me grant the point for now. The question is, “where do we go with that?” Is the answer to eliminate the test entirely, as she advocated? No. If anything, the solution is to vet the test thoroughly and eliminate as much bias as possible (though eliminating it entirely might be too difficult a task) by tweaking the problematic questions.

As it stands, though, I’m not sure eliminating *all* bias (defined as cultural background that a student must have to answer the question, cultural background that usually those outside the culture do not possess) would even be the best idea. If someone is to get a degree from an institution of *any* culture, there should be a bare minimum amount of cultural knowledge that someone must demonstrate in order for that degree to have any value. This is far from racist or elitist. It should go for those that immigrate to America, as well as those that immigrate from America to other countries. Were I to move to France and enroll in a college there, I’d expect nothing else. French citizens would and should feel insulted if I demanded a degree without taking the time to learn the history, literature, language and idioms of French culture.

That might touch upon immigrants, but what about groups within America, such as inner city youth, that might not be familiar with the language employed in these tests, and might not be familiar with the literature? One teacher blogger, for instance, said,

“Just out of curiosity, I looked up this past January’s Regents ‘Comprehension Examination.’ The topic of the two readings? Advice from a dietitian, and the ecological viability of using straw bales as an alternative building material.

Now, if you don’t think a white kid from the suburbs is about one hundred times more likely to have talked about things like this in his home than the child of a Dominican immigrant in the city, you’re fooling yourself. These tests are racially biased, whether they mean to be or not.”

Really, I don’t know *any* student, suburban or inner city, who would have talked about the ecological viability of using straw bales as an alternative building material in the home. Even if the scales are tipped in the first example, that doesn’t automatically mean racial bias is there. Seems like the blogger is assuming that if something is not a common topic of discussion in a subculture, that a question about that topic is racist. I find no reason to buy that assumption. Seems to me that a better conclusion would be: if nutrition is not a focus of inner-city homes, perhaps it should be.

Realize that the sword cuts both ways here. Sometimes tests feature questions about literature from the Harlem Renaissance, like poems from Langston Hughes. *If* it somehow turns out that suburban white homes aren’t nearly as familiar with the lit from Harlem Renaissance as inner city homes, does that ipso facto become an argument for eliminating the so called “racial bias”? No. If I encounter a test question featuring a passage about the cooking of a popular Puerto Rican meal, I have absolutely no familiarity with that, and neither do many of my white, middle-class students. Even worse for Asian students. I am not therefore going to cry racial bias.

When I did a little reading up on this argument, the examples typically given from the “racial bias” group were things that all schools—suburban and inner city–do and should be teaching their students. For instance, the same teacher above was concerned about a passage on the Appalachian Mountains. Hello? That’s basic U.S geography. If a school district didn’t cover that in grade school, they should be ashamed. My own students were frustrated after a recent benchmark test, because the test had passages from the letters of George Washington and the Stamp Act. “We’ve never covered anything like that” they complained. Even though we didn’t cover those two pieces specifically, *all* public schools cover literature from our country’s founding, just like *all* public schools cover geography and basic nutrition (health class), so there was exposure to that alien way of talking. Their quizzical looks do not mean the questions should have been eliminated…it simply means I should have done a better job when we hit the Rev. War period.

As far as the claim that inner city students are unfamiliar with the vocabulary and language, this simply becomes an argument for teaching students the formal register (academic English), not an argument for eliminating a supposedly “unfair test.” Though there are people out there that would argue this is racist, I have a hard time taking this seriously, for the formal register is a gateway to success in college and beyond. It is not “talking like you’re white.” Many in the black community find such a notion offensive.

Even if I were to recognize these concerns, that would only mean that the “bias” should be eliminated. This does not make a good argument for eliminating standardized testing entirely.

What about learning styles, though? Doesn’t “teaching to the test” force teachers to focus on one rather rare learning style, at the expense of others (verbal, conversational, kinesthetic modalities, for instance)?

Somewhat. However, recognize that in a system where resources are limited and the task is large (namely, educating *everyone* no matter the background), you can’t get everything. In a perfect world, methods of assessment could be tailored to individuals’ needs and personalities. Giving each student a portfolio of several kinds of assessments both formal and informal, along with the professional input a team of educators, would be great.

This method works great on a small scale. Schools and individual teachers do something like this all the time. I use small, individualized, informal and formal assessments that touch upon multiple learning modalities frequently in my classroom, and focusing on raising the standards test scores at the end of the year doesn’t eliminate the use of these kinds of assessments. Instituting a high stakes standardized test from the top down doesn’t mean we do nothing but practice bubble tests all day, though some teachers you talk to might throw out that canard. In fact, constantly assessing with the varied methods I just mentioned is a proven way to raise test scores.

The problem comes when you try to replace the standards test with the portfolio method on a large scale. It is horribly inefficient. Think of the manpower it would require to pull off. All those different tests would need to be accurately assessed from the outside. Self reporting, especially when the stakes are high, would create a huge temptation to fib feedback. The tests would need to be graded by neutral third parties. That would take a lot. The public ed system is already of gargantuan size. It is far from a lean and mean effective educating machine. It is large, over-sized¸ and moribund. Also, to go along with the manpower needed, a massive tax hike would be in order, larger than the most blue blooded Democrat could ever dream of or even put up with. Due to the growing size of entitlement programs, our government is already of Titanic size.

Another disadvantage to this is that it would increase, not decrease, teaching to the test. Whenever the stakes are high, the focus is located where the stakes are. Think about sports. Where are the stakes the highest? The post season. Where does any good coach worth his salt focus his team’s training? Towards the post season. That is where all teams hope to peak.

Take the stakes away, and you take away the focus. If the post season wasn’t where all the glory’s at, no one would give a whit. If the tests *really* didn’t matter, no one would teach to them.

Multiply the assessments but keep the stakes, and all you’ve done is make sure teachers must teach to and prepare those students for multiple tests. There would be more, not less, teaching to the tests. Maybe this wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would definitely step up expectations. It at least *wouldn’t* mean that having “high stakes” is ill informed. There needs to be some form of teacher and student accountability, afterall, and some way to accurately assess where students are at. What it does mean is that such a system wouldn’t eliminate “teaching to the test,” it wouldn’t eliminate students not graduating (since the expectations would be higher), it wouldn’t eliminate cultural bias (the way to take out cultural bias here would be the same way to take out cultural bias with the standardized tests), and, as I mentioned above, it would be incredibly difficult to administer and manage.

If you are the Sec. of Education, the problem you face is: “how can I get an accurate, objective vision of where the students under my charge are at, when I am far removed from the classroom?” Perhaps several informal and formal assessments made by individual teachers, tailored to their individual classrooms, injected with their own individual personalities, would yield good information *for those individual teachers,* but it would be a nightmare to interpret for anyone removed from those individual classrooms. My individual assessments might not even be *that* valuable for the teacher next door.

Think of this analogy: you are the head of a ten teacher PE department. You want to know if the kids under your charge are physically fit. So you tell the teachers in your department to go out, take a look at the kids, and report back what they know. So one teacher has them run the mile. Another has them to situps for one minute. A third has them do situps for three minutes. A fourth has them do a one rep max bench press. A fifth also has them do a one rep max bench press, but his weights and bars all vary and he uses inaccurate scales to determine their weights. Teachers seven and eight don’t do any objective tests, preferring to simply observe during free play time. Nine and ten just report back their hunches. If you were that department head, what would you do with what the teachers reported back to you?

This is roughly analagous to the job the Sec of Ed would have if we implemented my conversation partner’s idea, except even more so. The tests would be as individual and, in many cases, as subjective as the teachers themselves. If you think hedging standardized test data is currently easy, fibbing under this rubric would be exponentially easier.

Administering a test that yields a set of objective data is much more efficient. Efficiency isn’t the sunum bonum, but it needs to be considered when the system is so large. I know that stories of school and teacher cheating are becoming more and more common with these tests, so when I say “hard to fudge” I don’t claim that cheating is impossible or even rare…it’s just a lot more difficult to cheat there than in the “grassroots” system my conversation partner lobbied for.

Perhaps all this is simply an argument for decentralizing education by taking it out of the government’s hands. Localize it. Foster competition. That way, there’d be no standardized test forced from the top down. Individual schools could assess as they saw fit, and given that parents, due to the competition, could always go elsewhere for their child’s education, that would be high stakes accountability enough. There’s the advantage. Disadvantage: it probably would not be free for all.

As for students with disabilities, there should be, and often are, accommodations to assist these students in taking the test.

It’s not that I’m a “fan” of bubble tests…I’m not…it’s just that I’m skeptical of the common arguments I hear in my profession. Like I started out by saying, I tend to be contrarian.

So there’s her arguments and my response to them. There’s more going on under the surface, though. I think all the hub-bub about standardized tests is coming from somewhere else. Now, this is just my hunch. I repeat what I said above: I could be wrong, and since this is a rather unscientific post, I hold my views loosely. But here it is:

We teachers hate any sort of loss of autonomy, and we are leery of any sort of outside accountability, and the standardized tests ultimately represent both for us. Those tests are tests we didn’t make up, given to us by people we don’t know, and our performance on them is likewise assessed by, well, not us. I sensed this going on in the debate about merit pay…no matter what the proposed evaluation is, no matter what the benefits are of those who excel, you will find teachers’ unions and many teachers themselves come out hard against any and all forms of pay that is tied to performance. This is all about control and who ultimately has it.

We love to be the captains of our own individual ships. As soon as someone else comes in from the outside and tests us and our students—in any way—we bristle. We might not put up a huge fight always, and sometimes we keep our misgivings to ourselves, but expect a really hard pushback if there are stakes involved. That’s really where I think all this is coming from.

Like I said, there’s much not to like about, say, the STAR test or the CAHSEE (the CA high school exit exam), but are they really the educational black holes we say they are? We need a scapegoat, and they have become for us an easy way of ignoring more fundamental problems while arguing to maintain—or, to get back—our prized educational autonomy.

What is—or are—the problem(s), really? This post is already quite long, so let me just bring a mention. The problems are many, and what you see in classrooms (as far as lack of interest in education, lack of critical thinking, lack of a moral compass in students, etc) is *most of the time* merely a symptom. Public ed usually reinforces those problems, for sure, but they originate in other places. Breakdown of the family is one primary culprit. The problem is a moral one.

Think back to the picture I painted at the start of this post about the typical problems students bring into a classroom. How many of those feature some sort of brokenness or failure in the home? How many of them would be solved in large part by a stable, loving, and disciplined home life? The questions are rhetorical.

There’s not much time to expound upon this theme, but I will say educators and their union help have a love-hate relationship with this notion. On the one hand, when the topic is low test scores and why they exist, teachers et al make large capital of the breakdown of the family. “It’s not our fault,” we say, “look at what we’re up against. The task is impossible!” But on the other hand, admitting the breakdown of the family gives ground to conservatives (like myself) who argue that the family is more primary than the school. Many educators implicitly—if not explicitly—hold that public education is the savior of society, and many are uneasy with policy that gives parents more control over schools. Witness the political backlash to things like voucher systems, and allowing parents to opt their child out of certain controversial lessons. There is special disdain in public ed circles for parents who have religious objections to having their child go through these lessons. There’s even unease when it comes to parental notification about birth control—including abortion—access and distribution. Many have voted in government policy and voted in politicians that have helped continue the Family’s slouch towards Gomorrah. Admitting the largess of the problems in the institution of the family subtly casts doubt on the notion that public education can do it all. It can’t. Not even close. It’s not the right horse for the job.

In conclusion: “the tests” might be bad, but if we’re really fans of education, we are fighting on the wrong battlefront. The most important battle is elsewhere.