Theory and Practice

The New Tests

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Can you tell my daughter lives in a home with educators as parents?

Everything you have ever wanted, is on the other side of fear. – George Addair

‘The good teachers are starting to leave’ by Valerie Strauss (The Washington Post, February 27, 2015)

Strauss, a reporter and a former teacher, posts a letter that a high school English teacher wrote to the incoming state superintendent in Georgia. Susan Barber has a positive outlook as a teacher, now seven years into her career. Yet she cannot help but feel disillusioned by the massive amount of testing required of her students. “If I am going to be measured on how well my students read and write, I need more time to teach them to read and write.” She is equally baffled by the amount of money being dumped into an education initiative that has no effect on learning. “Students do not directly benefit from testing, yet that is where the money goes.”

Testing is Biggest Moneymaker for Education Technology Vendors by David Nagel (T|H|E Magazine, February 24, 2015)

A report from the Software and Information Industry Association found that “vendors and publishers raked in $2.5 billion on digital assessment products in the United States in the 2012-2013 school year.” Language arts and mathematics, which happen to be the two topics tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA), were the largest subjects of software purchased.

PARCC Tests and Readability: A Close Look by Russ Walsh (Russ on Reading, February 8, 2015)

Walsh, the coordinator of college reading at Rider University, examines the text complexity of the other widely-used new standardized test, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). He notes that Lexile levels were raised at the request of the authors of the Common Core State Standards. Walsh then uses a battery of reading assessment tools to determine the grade level for each test. The result: Reading passages on the PARCC were “about two grade levels above the readability of the grade and age of the children by measures other than the Lexile level.”

ASCD Testing and Accountability Statement

In a short position paper, accompanied by a brief video explanation, one of the most respected education organizations calls for a two year moratorium on standardized assessments. The organization’s rationale includes “over testing, a narrowing of the curriculum, and a de-emphasis of untested subjects and concepts—the arts, civics, and social and emotional skills, among many others—that are just as important to a student’s development and long-term success.” ASCD also makes a point to separate the Common Core State Standards from “this antiquated accountability system.”

Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing by Christopher Chase (Creative by Nature, February 21, 2015)

This post is a summarized interview with the well-known American linguist and author. Chomsky abhors the focus on competition with standardized assessments because of how it distorts instruction. “The student can’t pursue things, maybe some kid is interested in something, can’t do it because you got to memorize something for this test tomorrow. And the teacher’s future depends on it, as well as the student.” He notes how his own children were subjected to these types of comparisons, separating classmates into high and low level ability groups. Chomsky concludes this interview with a statement that gave me a pause.

All of the mechanisms – testing, assessing, evaluating, measuring – the force people to develop those characteristics… These ideas and concepts have consequences…

No quarter

Normally in these posts, I attempt to analyze the five articles and posts summarized and examine the grey areas of the topic.

But this is not a normal situation. Consider:

  • We are asking eight years olds to take a test that, for many of them, is two grades above their reading level.
  • The tool being used to deliver the test, a computer, gives an additional advantage to kids of more affluent families, because they are more likely to have access to a computer in their homes.
  • The reading for these tests is on a screen that has worse resolution than print, eReaders, and tablets.
  • These tests will take literally days to complete, which ties up the computer lab, which results in other classrooms not being able to use the lab for more important learning activities. (And if your lab is located in your LMC like mine is, kids may not be able to go in and check out books.)
  • The Smarter Balanced Assessment recommends that kids take these tests for 45 minutes at a time, even though eye strain can occur within just 20 minutes of staring at a screen.
  • In spite of the incredible amount of money flowing into these testing companies, their software is subpar. For example, students have to press an “answer box” before actually inputting solutions to math problems. As for the reading portion, the user cannot annotate the text, or even copy and paste parts of the text into their responses. Maybe Diigo should have created these tests (a free tool I use to pull together these articles).
  • What gets tested is what gets taught. Tying teacher evaluations to the results of these assessments helps ensure that the curriculum delivered is narrowed to primarily the core subjects. Creativity declines because the assumption that there is always one right answer to a problem gets reinforced with these tests.
  • Teaching to the test leads to a decline in staff morale, which can result in teachers leaving the profession.

I could go on and on. However, I doubt I am sharing anything readers don’t already know, or at least suspect. Still, I think this information needs to be shared over and over again. Advocacy is an essential part of school leadership. As I recently stated in my post yesterday, “To not advocate is to concede our authority as the experts in our profession.” We are in the right on this one. There is nothing to be afraid of.

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6 thoughts on “The New Tests”

  1. Matt, I especially appreciate this post, the articles you selected plus all your astute comments. The national overemphasis on testing is harmful to good teaching. It’s up to us educators–and parents too–to insist on balanced and useful assessment practices.

  2. Hi Matt,
    I have liked your post because it’s important information that definitely needs to be shared over and over again. I just don’t like that content. It’s horrific. I’m listening to an interesting book at the moment “Why Don’t Students Like School” by Daniel T. Willingham. Willingham is a cognitive scientist and has many very interesting things to say about how our minds work and provides clear implications for classroom practice. Of note is that many quotes (re rote learning, focus on testing) from writers at various times during the past two hundred years or so are just as applicable today. Why doesn’t education ever move on?
    As you say, unless we advocate we concede the authority of our profession. We don’t seem to be given much authority, which places the shame on those who are determining the policies and procedures with little regard for student learning and well-being.
    I am providing a link to an article published by one of Australia’s leading educational organisations on data mining. (?!?) http://teacher.acer.edu.au/article/big-data-and-education-data-mining
    Just below the first paragraph is a video about “A breakthrough digital solution for monitoring learning between standardised testing.” !!! I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.

    1. Thank you Norah, for sharing your perspective and the resources. I have seen Willinghmam’s work referenced frequently. I’ll have to put that book on my to-read list.

      As for that “breakthrough digital solution for monitoring learning”, I cannot imagine it being even remotely as effective as a teacher well-versed in how to plan, confer, and respond to students’ needs.

      1. Exactly! Why on earth anyone would have to do this extra testing between the-already-too-frequent rounds of standardized testing is beyond me!

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