Friday, February 25, 2011
The Perils of Standardized Testing
This brought to mind something I read recently, that scarcely more than a third of college graduates can successfully write an essay comparing two newspaper articles. "That's what I asked them to do," the professor said. Not two articles, but two pieces of poetry. "I can't simply ask them to analyze one poem, because most of them will search the Internet and copy what they find. This is the only way I can be sure I'm getting their own work."
A few months ago I read somebody's short-sighted retort to critics of high-stakes standardized testing. He gave an example of a question from a standardized test and asked, "Isn't this exactly what students are supposed to be learning?" But no, although I'm willing to allow for much greater emphasis on basic comprehension in the early grades, reading a few paragraphs and answering a series of multiple choice questions pertaining to that block of text is not a fair test of what students should be learning. High school students should be able to write essays comparing two newspaper articles or poems. College students should not be stumbling over such a basic task. For most college graduates to still struggle? Something is very wrong.
Two things, perhaps. First, it suggests that standardized tests are focused on the easily measurable, which means concrete tasks and concrete thinking, not more complex, abstract tasks or abstract thinking, and if students are unfortunate enough to be in a school district that spends a considerable amount of time "teaching to the test" they may become masters at reading a few paragraphs of text or a simple math problem then "ruling out the two unlikely answers and choosing the most likely of the two remaining answers", but aren't being prepared for more complex analysis, problem solving, critical thinking, or reading longer form materials.
Second, it reinforces the fact that not all students are college material. Some may become college material after a year, two years, or perhaps ten or more years in the working world. Some will be much better served by vocational training, a modern form of apprenticeship, or by simply entering the job market. Even if we ascribe some of the poor analytic performance of college grads to the colleges themselves, if that statistic is accurate it still suggests that about half of the students who presently attend college aren't likely to get much out of the experience - four years of expensive life-postponement. Nobody should view that as acceptable.