Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Standardized Testing and School Accountability
Everyone has an opinion about these tests. On the one hand many associated with the school system hate them. They say they spend their lives teaching the test and they have no time go get creative, to nurture kids with talents not measured on the yearly test. They claim that holding them responsible for test scores ignores the fact that kids who do poorly often come from poor home situations and that there is little if anything they can do about those situations. They give homework they claim, but no one does it. Why should the teachers be blamed if the kids do not do the work and therefore do not do well on the tests? They also mention the millions of dollars spent on the tests that could better be spent lowering class size or otherwise doing things to actually help kids who are having trouble. On the other hand you hear plenty of stories of schools that are failing the kids. You hear of high school graduates who cannot read and write well enough to fill out a job application or who cannot make change when the cash register tells them to hand the customer $1.32. You hear of teachers who send out notes with grammatical errors or who do not appear to understand the material they are supposed to be teaching. Something clearly needs to be done. Standardized testing, the theory goes, allows us to identify kids who are not making the grade and make them repeat it. It can also identify schools that aren't doing their job.
My thoughts? I think there is a place for standardized testing, but I think they are way overused. For the record, I do not think weight control should be the responsibility of the schools, but let's say it was. Let's say we decided that keeping kids at a good weight was to be the goal of every school. As a result, a school system decides it is going to have weigh ins on the first and last days of school, at which time they will also check the students' height and plot the kids according to the height/weight chart showing what the kids should weigh. Now, if you accept that weight control is the school's job, this yearly weigh-in doesn't sound unreasonable--except that anyone with two eyes could pick out which kids really have a weight problem, just as any decent teacher in your school should be able to tell you which kids have reading problems or math problems. Yes, there are probably a few kids "on the edge" that I couldn't tell were "too heavy" or "not heavy enough" without actually measuring/weighing them, but for the most part, people who know what to look for don't need a scale to answer that question.
Taking the analogy further however, since the schools are docked for every pound over the ideal, they start teaching the tricks that most Weight Watchers members figure out by themselves. Wear heavy clothes the first day you are weighed, lighter clothes the last time. Don't eat crawfish the day before a weigh-in. Exercise and sweat before a weigh-in, but wait to drink until after you step on the scale. Now, these "tricks" don't have any long-term effect on weight, or more precisely, on fat, but if the goal is one more pound off on the scale, they'll help. In the same way, schools teach "test taking" skills that have little to do with reading and writing and mathematics, but can add a few points to the average score. What about the kids who fail? Keeping to the weight analogy, if a child is too heavy in 4th grade or 8th grade we are going to require that she/he repeat the grade--but we don't offer extra PE, we don't send them to a diet class, we don't send them to the doctor--we just make them do those grades again and hope they either figure out how to lose weight, or grow into their weight. All too often that is what happens when a child performs poorly on standardized tests. Unless a child meets the narrow qualifications for special education, failing a standardized test does not necessarily qualify him/her for extra help or an alternate teaching technique.
I think frequent standardized testing of middle or upper class kids in schools primarily populated with such kids is probably a waste of time. Put simply, these are the kids whose parents are involved with their kids and who know what they want from a school. They know if their kids are reading from a grade level textbook and know if they can do so. If the child is having trouble, the parents generally know it and are trying to solve the problem whether by putting pressure on the school for additional help, working with their child outside of school and/or paying for tutoring or enrichment activities. Significant time devoted to standardized testing or test preparation is simply documenting the obvious.
On the other hand, I think of a couple of stories I read in the paper in New Orleans. About ten years ago a girl was getting ready to graduate from a New Orleans public neighborhood high school. That in and of itself tells locals that 1) the girl's family was poor and 2) she lacked either the academic ability to get into a magnet school or the gumption to apply. In general kids who could get out of those schools did. This girl was slated to be the valedictorian at her school, however she was unable to pass the math section of the required exit examination so she was unable to graduate with her class. The article also noted that her ACT score was a 11. The girl and her family thought it was unfair that she couldn't graduate simply because she did not test well. Perhaps she was a bright, well-educated student who truly had trouble with all those bubbles but I think it is more likely that she was hard-working girl who was never taught what she needed to know. She was probably a good kid who did all her homework, even when her classmates did not. I venture to say that the school did not demand via the tests and/or projects assigned in class that the students perform on a high school level; if they did, chances are this girl (and most of her classmates) would have failed. While this girl and her family were proud of her good grades, they did not realize those grades did not mean she was learning what most people expect from students in her grade. Unfortunately, her family decided to blame the test, not the school.
Another story that comes to mind was told by a local newspaper columnist who often wrote about racial issues (he is African-American). He said that his nephew's standardized test scores were bad and that like many African-Americans, he (the columnist) blamed the tests, as it is well-known that African-Americans do not do as well on them as European-Americans. He knew his nephew was bright and knew he was doing well in school; therefore, the problem had to be the test. Well, one day he went to visit the school and saw the books the class was using. He said that at that point he realized that his nephew was acing second grade. The only problem was that the sign on the door said fourth grade, and his nephew was nine, not seven.
Is it fair to force a child to repeat a grade because she or he did not pass a standardized test, even though she or he did well in class? Is it fair to pass a child who cannot perform at normal level for that grade? Do I think that standardized testing is only indication of whether a child will be successful as an adult? No. Do I think that standardized tests will tell in a real hurry whether a child can read or do math at an appropriate level? Yes. Do I think a few points difference in a standardized test score is really all that significant? No. Do I think standardized tests have their place? Yes. What about you?