Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Standardized Testing and School Accountability

Every year schools these day go through the ritual of standardized testing. There will be pep rallies, breakfast will be served, pencils given out and prizes given to kids with perfect attendance during the ritual. Schools want to make sure they get every point possible out of every student, and with good reason; it is these scores that determine whether schools are "good" or "bad" and often, whether the school's administrators keep their jobs.

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?


  1. I've been out of the classroom for over 20 yrs. I look at it from the viewpoint of the teacher. Some systems are (or want to) tie teacher retention and/or raises to test scores. I had a 6th grade student who was not an average student. She'd had cancer as a child along with chemo (I would love to see a study on chemo's effect on kids' learning)and just had the hardest time learning. I had her in my Math class along with exceptionally bright kids. I was at a loss of how to help her during the school year. She didn't test into special ed because she was achieving at her expected level. If I had been rated on my student's test scores, I might not get a raise... but what more could I do for this child?

    1. I understand what you are saying. I certainly don't think that 100% of any teacher's evaluation should be test scores however, I think that test scores, particularly patterns of test scores should be used. If on average the kids who take your math class are scoring several percentage points lower (ie the average score for the kids who are in your class this year was in the 55th percentile last year and this year it is down to the 50%, and that drop is something that has happened to your kids consistently over the last few years, then I'd say you aren't doing your job. On the other hand if you are the teacher who takes those kids who scored in the 30th percentile last year and you move them to the 45th, even though they are still below average, I'd say you've done your job.

  2. I never had kids, to be fair, I have never been associated with the education system aside from being a student. Fortunately, I fell into the group of kids that barely studied and easily aced any test. This was from elementery school on up. I found it hard at that time to understand why everyone did not think as "fast" as I did or mentally solve math problems. I do read about the schools and the issues of standardized test even with no kids. There should be a three fold effort involving student, parent and teacher. Sometimes I find it hard to imagine the use of socio-economic arguments to validate poor teaching, studying and parenting. I could go into the breakdown of the "family" unit as a good reason for underachievement but that would take pages. Personally I think alot of testing issues boil down to responsibility. Parents place the responsibility of education primarily on teachers, teachers blame the parents for not teaching basics before school age and students point their fingers at everyone else for their lack of skill when booted out into the real world. Then, I am a real cynic and believe responsibility, consequences and experience should be the motivations of all teachers, parents and students.

    1. In some ways it doesn't seem fair to blame the teachers when so many factors are out of their control. However, I work for an insurance defense law firm. We litigate against people who sue for car accidents, slip and falls and other personal injuries. We usually "lose", we usually pay money to our opponents. Does that mean we are bad at what we do? No, it means that after we worked up the case either the claims adjuster or a jury decided that the best way to resolve it was to pay the plaintiff some money. Now, if we were paying out more money on similar claims that what other law firms were, or charging more for it, we'd find our business drying up. In the same way, oncologists lose a lot more patients than dermatologists do, but it doesn't mean dermatologists are better doctors. You have to evaluate professionals within the parameters within which they work. However, there are schools that teach kids in the lower socio-economic groups that do far better than would be expected just looking at their socio-economic data. Some people have figured out what to do with those kids; as a society we need to figure out what that is and repeat it.

  3. It is a tough call.
    Standardized testing has its place. It keeps the community aware of what is going on. It pushes public school teachers to do their best and pushes bad ones out of the classroom. Schools are forced to shift and bad teachers were pushed to move along.

    Teachers should be judged on growth of the students as a whole. The "teacher" evaluation should be a mode of growth of the group not the medium.

    Schools would like you to believe that passing "the test" means the children are above average. In reality it takes a 68% to pass a state test. Should a 90 IQ mainstreamed student be able to accomplish 68% of the curriculum with adequate teaching? I think they should. There are extenuating circumstances. Renee's student would be an example. Those are rare.

    What did I learn when traveling across the country a decade ago?
    What I found was about 10% of the 700 schools I visited had some very bad teachers (read newspapers in class, did not know how to run a classroom, punished kids for crazy things). Two percent of the schools had segregated children (blacks in one SPED school& whites in the gifted school, those who couldn't read by the end of kinder forced to be in SPED for the rest of their school career, one minority keeping a different minority at a lower level). NCLB sounded the alarms for those situations.

    The real change in education will happen in the next ten years. As our generation retires, the schools will change. Standardized testing will help move that change forward. The only places that will suffer are the ones who insist that color of skin is more important then the competency of the teacher.

    The new problem is that the new national curriculum is so dumb down. What good is it in the long run? Kids will pass the test but will know significantly less then they ever did before.
    Ah we are, once again, forced to follow our British friends to find out that "private schools" (which they call public) are going to continue with traditional curriculum and send their kids to university and everyone else will go to JC to find out what they missed!
    That is an entirely different post!

    1. Janette, I've been reading different things about the Common Core. On the one hand there are the folks who just plain don't like Washington dictating what they should do. I'm in that group to some degree, but like something I read online said, the fact that Michelle Obamah is pushing veggies and I can't stand her husband and his politics doesn't mean that eating veggies is a bad idea. I've heard the CC is too test-centric. I've heard it encourages kids to think and figure things out rather than relying on rote memory. I've heard it encourages reading for information and using the information found; I've heard it will be the death of teaching literature.

  4. I suppose standardized tests are like democracy: except for the alternatives, they stink.

    Regardless, the Federal Gov't should pry its nose out of local business, which includes education.


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