Friday, February 20, 2009

Educational Philosophy From Across the Pond

Reacting to an increasing emphasis on test results in the evaluation of the British educational system, a recent study suggests,
Teaching to the test has become endemic, sapping the enthusiasm of teachers and pupils alike. As the Cambridge review finds, the result, in too many cases, is a new form of rote learning in which pupils memorise the answers that are required, without understanding the hows and whys. Professor Alexander argues that standards and breadth are not incompatible and pleads for the return to the curriculum of creative subjects and approaches that have been progressively squeezed out by the requirements of testing. He goes so far as to suggest that stressing standards above all else is actually counterproductive to raising those very same standards, because a sterile focus on tests can have the effect of depressing achievement, while a broader approach can foster an additional measure of interest and enthusiasm that raises standards of its own accord.
This is one of the things I find worrisome about "No Child Left Behind", or charter schools that "improve the performance" of inner city kids through rote learning exercises. Improving test scores is not the same thing as improving education. In some cases, it's not even the same thing as teaching. And yet it's what many want to use as the primary or sole measure of effective teaching.


  1. It's a trade-off, but I'm not sure it is one you can avoid.

    If you put value on the test results, you encourage people to "teach the test."

    On the other hand, without standardized testing, you have no objective measure of either the skill level of the students or whether or not various efforts or educational reforms are paying off.

    Although I agree with you about the potential/historic problems with the tests, I'm not sure that a "no standardized test" system wouldn't be worse.


  2. But you're assuming a good test, that minimizes the potential for teaching to the test, gaming the test, or cheating. I know there's an occasional furor when schools or teachers are caught overtly cheating on the test, but the rest is pretty murky.

    Also, since when is a standardized test the best way to measure learning? It's the easiest type of test to administer, certainly, and grading is nominally objective. But you get a fraction of the insight you can derive into a student's knowledge or thinking skills that you can derive from essay testing or oral testing.

    "Too costly", "too work-intensive", the same old administration song and dance. Who's writing the tests, who's buying the tests, and what are their goals and priorities?

    When you were in school, did your teacher even once look at a standardized test score to determine how you were doing in class, and the areas where you might need extra help? Even once? We took standardized tests because we had to but mine didn't - the tests were for the administrators.

  3. How do you compare oral or essay test results across different classes, much less different states/school systems?

    I don't think the tests are supposed to be used "within the class room". They are a tool to compare different class rooms.


  4. Without intensive, costly study you can't compare across schools or states in any objective or absolute manner. You can have a school in one district with great teachers like your parents, who teach students to think and learn, and a school in another district where they focus on rote memory exercises and test prep. If the two groups of students perform "equally" on a standardized test, that does absolutely nothing to establish that they've learned equally or have been equally prepared for future studies.

    Besides, as I have previously argued, if the point is to compare students, to help students, to do anything for students, the standardized tests should come close to the start of the year - which is when the information they produce can be used to assist students who are falling behind. They should not be given toward the end of the year when a mediocre school can try to cover up its mediocrity by drilling the students with test prep exercises over the preceding months.

    I have been very clear that these tests are about helping school administrators, not students. But if we're not going to at least pretend that they measure student achievement in some meaningful way, why are we even talking about their usefulness in comparing classrooms?

    "Tests prove that these two bags contain the same number of beans, and thus the bags are equivalent."

    "How big are the beans in each bag? What type of beans are in each bag? Are they fresh? Frozen? Freeze-dried?"

    "Er.... I dunno."


    Testing, even standardized testing, has its time and place. To the extent that it's the most efficient way to get a rough estimate of student progress and compare it across schools and regions, standardized testing is useful. But let's not confuse that with my complaints - that when you make the standardized test the absolute measure of school quality and student performance, you create an environment in some, many, or with enough emphasis in most schools that interferes with actual teaching and learning.

    In talking to teachers whose schools have climbed onto the NCLB standardized test treadmill, I have yet to find one who describes it as a good thing - more typically, they describe it as something that could drive good people out of the classroom.

  5. What is the current administrations view on NCLB?

    Maybe you'll get a change.


  6. Hope for change, right?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.