Monday, August 09, 2004

We Have To Test....


That seems to be the new standard response to any who question or challenge the notion of standardized national testing of grade school children. And while Kerry has suggested some additional approaches - better funding, training, and testing for teachers, and looking beyond the test when evaluating the performance of kids - these suggestions are not innovative, nor are they likely to either receive the type of funding or implementation that would actually result in improvement.

The biggest complaint about standardized tests - and it is valid - is that schools teach to the test. In some cases, teachers have even been shown to have obtained the test in advance and to have literally taught from it. This used to be the biggest problem in "failing schools", where school administrators and teachers assumed that too many kids would fail or do poorly if they focused on teaching their subjects rather than transforming the school into a test preparation center. But with "No Child Left Behind", even a good school can be defined as "failing" based upon whether or not its standardized test scores "improve" from year to year.

The biggest failing of "No Child Left Behind" is probably its focus on rote learning. It seems that the Bush Administration defines "reading" as "being able to decode words on a page", and "learning" as "being able to recite lessons taught in class". Schools which want to teach broader language skills and critical thinking can suffer as their kids, who will be far more capable thinkers in the future, compete against kids who have spent a school year focused primarily on standardized test performance.

So what to do.... Here's one that will make school administrators and teachers who are gaming the system blanche: Give the test at the start of the new school year, rather than during the course of the prior school year. Give the teachers a couple of weeks to bring the kids back up to speed from their near-inevitable summer backsliding, then administer the test. Kids who really learned their lessons the year before will do well. And that's what the testing is really supposed to measure.

Isn't it?

2 comments:

  1. You've heard me complain about this before: the lowest-end schools will end up concentrating all of their resources on "bringing up to level," that is, making sure the test scores are as high as possible. In theory this sounds good; the lowest-performers are helped. In reality, this means everything from manipulating the enrollment rolls, as was done in Texas, to the schools' inability to achieve anything other than "improvement" (leaving non-struggling students to flounder on their own).

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  2. We have one school in our school district in the the 'needs improvement' category because not enough kids took the test. To show how punitive and unfair the rules are, you need to know they missed the cutoff by one student. The school is deemed failing, not because the teachers are not teaching well but because a parent decided not to let the kid be tested.

    The whole idea that one test will show whether kids are receiving a good education is flawed. Good measures of achievement require some sort of validity testing (research); looking at some of the test questions, I don't think the tests are guarenteed to be well-constructed. As it is, achievement test results are notoriously correlated to social economic status. I think it will be damned hard to design a test which would accurately measure whether the kids are getting a good education. On top of that, you need to validate your test with research.

    I'm concerned all these code words of 'accountability' and 'proficiency' is just a way of reframing so that if you oppose testing, then you are evil, stupid and reckless. In the meantime, if your school isn't able to jump over all the many many hoops, then money is siphoned off into expensive tutoring and transportation to other schools. Forget that no extra money is provided to schools to improve education.

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