Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Standardized testing - a 'come to Jesus' blog post

Happy Standardized Testing Season, everyone! Since the third week of April, our school has had students engaged in some sort of standardized testing almost every day, starting with EOCs (or End of Course assessments) then AP testing, then ODP (On Demand Writing Prompts). Of course, that doesn't even count the state mandated testing that occurred at other points in the year - PLAN, EXPLORE, K-PREP, ACT - or the optional tests that students are encouraged to take - PSAT, ASVAB, SAT.

Here's a look at one of our recent set-ups for testing about 300 sophomores in the arena for EOC exams. (EOC exams occur in core content classes like English II, Algebra II, Biology, and U.S. History.) 

Interestingly enough, I don't have a problem with the idea of standardized testing as one measurement of student learning. I believe that there is some merit in testing all students on a single measurement to gauge how they stack up against their peers and against basic sets of expectations. Should that be the only measurement considered when making decisions about a child's success or academic future? Certainly not. But used together with classroom performance and letters of reference and individualized writing/interviews, it can be a useful tool.

I do not believe, however, that schools (or teachers) should be punished based on the performance of their students. Other professionals are not measured by the behavior of their clientele. Attorneys aren't punished for the recidivism rate of their clients. Doctors aren't penalized for the disease and/or death rate of their patients. Priests aren't penalized for the sins of their parishioners. Nurses aren't punished for the amount of pain medicines their patients need. Personnel managers aren't penalized for workers who must be fired for bad behavior or who quit to work elsewhere. When we talk about careers where clients make most of the decisions and professionals provide services, the responsibility for good behavior falls to the clientele.  This is true in almost every case except public education.

In public education, if anyone is at fault for any problem, it must be the schools themselves, or more specifically, its teachers. Certainly, any failure cannot possibly be attributed to the incredibly high rate of poverty many students experience. I'm sure that my test prep strategies will compensate for whatever else might be lacking in the lives of the 60% of my students who qualify for free/reduced lunch. Certainly, any failure cannot possibly be attributed to the incredibly high number of parents who have been forced to work long hours and nights and weekends leaving children mainly to fend for themselves after the age of eight or so.  Certainly, any failure cannot possibly be attributed to the number of children who have experienced hunger in their lives, many of whom do so regularly even into their teenage years. It's true, any failure could have no connection to drug or alcohol use (either by parents or children themselves). Any failure could not be the result of inadequate health care or mental health support. It couldn't possibly be related to parents who are incarcerated or who are abusive or who are apathetic. I'm sure that students who are political or cultural or economic refugees will have the same amount of success as any other student. Certainly, it's not possible that students with learning disabilities or who are learning English as a second or third language could struggle on standardized exams. I see no reason why students who work for 20 or 30 or 40 hours per week wouldn't be successful on standardized exams. As you can see, the odds of success are indeed stacked against many students through no fault of their own. Those same odds against success are stacked against their schools. The problems our schools face, the problems our students face are indicative of problems in our culture and not one specific governmental entity, like public schools.

Of course, what's really at issue isn't the serious, bureaucratic, focused, funded attempt to fix any of those problems. All we need to do as a country is raise our test scores. Then, we can say that we are successful. I mean, test scores are really the primary indicator of current and future success. If those blasted teachers would just do their jobs correctly, then our children would all be knocking those test scores out of the park!  How many variations of that message have you seen in the newspaper and on the news and on social media?

Honestly, I have a problem with that line of thinking. I can teach to the test. I can give students strategies to help them take the test. We can practice sample tests ahead of time and talk about why the answers are correct/incorrect. I can even threaten and cajole and encourage them. But when it comes right down to it, the students take the test. The students have to show what they have learned. The students have a responsibility to give the test their best effort. And yet, the students have little or no incentive to perform. Most of the time, the scores on these tests have no direct impact on a student's grade or academic future. (EOCs are an exception since they do count as the final exam grade for a course at our school; ACT does have an impact on college entrance.)

Think about this truth - while I am not sitting in that desk and taking that exam, I am being judged by my students' performances. I have much more at stake in their success than they do. I care much more about the exam than they do. Doesn't there seem to be something inherently wrong with that picture?

Please don't get me started on the issue of our nation selling its academic soul to Pearson; that's another rant for another day.

Here I am in my backyard looking thrilled after a long day of testing...

If you are interested in the topic of standardized testing, you might want to check out this article.
Education Reform's Big Lie

Peace out, everybody. School is almost out for summer, and I definitely need a bit of a break. :)


  1. Our school district is similar demographically to yours with regard to income, although we're smaller -- ~100 kids in a grade. There was a big movement against state testing this year -- huge percentage of kids' parents had them opt out. We didn't, much to our daughter's dismay -- she would have rather been reading a book -- ha! The cost/benefit of the decision was murky at best. From what I read, there won't be any immediate repercussions, but a certain amount of state funding is tied to having a certain percentage of kids take the tests, so in a few years we could lose funding over this choice.

    "Doctors aren't penalized for the disease and/or death rate of their patients." Actually, the way healthcare is reimbursed in this country is changing from a fee for service model to a capitated model. Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement is already subject to things like HCAHPS scores -- a survey which expresses the patient's "experience of care." In addition, there are some things that, if they occur in the inpatient setting, the hospital/doctors will not get paid for the additional treatment needed (if a patient acquires pneumonia while in the hospital, etc.) In my state, NY, there are programs such as DSRIP, in which various healthcare institutions and agencies are partnering to care for the health of a particular population of people. If you do a good job helping people make good choices, which means better health, you'll be financially successful. If not, then you've got a problem, Houston.

    ~ Laura

  2. Bravo! I'm a retired teacher and could not agree more!!!

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  4. Wow -- I might be a bit late to post but you hit the nail on the head. Being a band director, I'm kind of glad not to have a standardized test by which to be judged. However, because my subject area doesn't have a test we often don't have validity in our programs. UGH!

    Our Minnesota state exams had lots of problems this spring. Very frustrating for scheduling and keeping kids focused until the end of the year.

    I find your testing set-up photos interesting. We just plop our students into their normal classrooms and have various teachers monitor the testing.

    Your 21-year teaching twin,
    cre82live (Barbara)