Education, Standardized Testing — December 18, 2019 at 2:03 pm

“How will we know how our kids are doing if we don’t test them?” Here’s how…


Attending the recent Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh last weekend was a wonderful experience in many ways…getting a chance to hear what many of the presidential candidates had to say about public education; meeting some of my favorite education reporters bloggers, and activists; and finally seeing public education receive the attention it deserves as one of the most important issues facing our nation. All in all, it was a terrific weekend…except for one nagging question, left largely unanswered by any of the candidates, and now lingering and looming over the next several months of debates, analyses, and discussions.

This question was asked many times, and in a variety of ways, but in its most essential form it looks pretty much like this:

“How will we know how our kids are doing if we don’t test them?”

On its face this looks like a perfectly legitimate question. After all, isn’t that what “tests” are for? To determine what and how much students know? Didn’t all of us have to take tests when we were in school? We turned out ok, so what’s the big deal? Why do so many teachers have such strong feelings about testing all of the sudden? What’s going on???

Well, first–a little context.

That was then, this is now…

A lot has changed when it comes to testing, and how it’s done in our schools today as compared to how testing worked when some of us were children.

First, a few definitions:

  • Assessment: The process of gathering information about student learning in a broad manner. Can be organized in portfolios.
  • Measurement: Using objective, reliable methodology to observe student learning behaviors. Rubrics and rating scales are measurements.
  • Evaluation: Comparing evidence of assessment in relation to a standard. Grading is a form of evaluation.

When we hear folks talking about testing these days, for the most part they are not referring to the kinds of tests and quizzes one might remember from their own schooling. Those assessment tools were used by–and usually constructed by–teachers to ascertain how their students were doing in class. Things like who was understanding the concepts being covered in class, who wasn’t, and what the teacher could do differently to help her students better comprehend the information being taught in class.

Nowadays, the term “testing” is used as shorthand for “standardized tests”–think “SAT”, “ACT”, or “edTPA”–in other words, the kind of test that’s meant to be administered one time (usually annually), to thousands of students, under tightly-controlled conditions, the results of which are “normed” (where students’ scores are compared to all other students’ scores who took the test) and used for relatively “high-stakes” purposes (college admissions, scholarship consideration, graduation requirements, or certification requirements).

Here’s how these two approaches to assessment compare at a glance:

Conventional Assessment

· annual

· multiple choice

· based on single setting

· norm-referenced

· teacher-proof

Authentic Assessment

· ongoing, cumulative

· open-ended formats

· variety of settings

· theory-referenced

· teacher-mediated

Quality…and Quantity

But it’s not just the type of testing that has changed–it’s also the number of standardized tests our children are now required to take. Most of us remember taking a standardized test for college admissions purposes (usually the SAT or ACT), and an assortment of “end of course” (EOC) tests, often required by state education departments. As a high school student, for example, I took New York State Regents Examinations in a variety of academic subjects, an AP Biology exam, and the SAT, for a total of roughly 8 standardized tests over the course of my high school career.

My, how things have changed:

Testing now “amounts to about 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average eighth-grader in public school. Between pre-K and 12th grade, students took about 112 mandatory standardized exams(emphasis added)

The study analyzed the time spent actually taking the tests, but it did not include the hours devoted to preparation ahead of the testing required by the federal government, states or local districts. It also did not include regular day-to-day classroom quizzes and tests in reading, math, science, foreign languages and more.”

In Michigan, a public school student is expected to sit for the following state-sanctioned standardized examinations:

Grade Test Type Mandate Test Name Subjects Given Purpose
K-2 Benchmark Required Early Literacy and Mathematics Benchmark ELA, Mathematics Fall, Winter, Spring Within-year progress; program improvement
K-2 Benchmark Required Assessment or District-selected benchmark ELA, Mathematics Fall, Winter, Spring Within-year progress; program improvement
3 Summative Required M-STEP ELA, Mathematics Spring Proficiency; accountability
3 Benchmark Required District-selected benchmark assessment ELA Fall, Winter, Spring Within-year progress; program improvement
3 Benchmark Optional District-selected benchmark assessment Mathematics Multiple Within-year progress; program improvement
4 Summative Required M-STEP ELA, Mathematics Spring Proficiency; accountability
4 Benchmark Optional District-selected benchmark assessment ELA, Mathematics Multiple Within-year progress; program improvement
5 Summative Required M-STEP ELA, Mathematics Spring Proficiency; accountability
5 Summative Required M-STEP Science, Social Studies Spring Proficiency; accountability
5 Benchmark Optional District-selected benchmark assessment ELA, Mathematics Multiple Within-year progress; program improvement
6 Summative Required M-STEP ELA, Mathematics Spring Proficiency; accountability
6 Benchmark Optional District-selected benchmark assessment ELA, Mathematics Multiple Within-year progress; program improvement
7 Summative Required M-STEP ELA, Mathematics Spring Proficiency; accountability
7 Benchmark Optional District-selected benchmark assessment ELA, Mathematics Multiple Within-year progress; program improvement
8 Summative Required PSAT 8/9 ELA, Mathematics Spring Proficiency; accountability; college readiness
8 Summative Required M-STEP Science, Social Studies Spring Proficiency; accountability
8 Benchmark Optional District-selected benchmark assessment ELA, Mathematics Multiple Within-year progress; program improvement
9 Summative Required PSAT 8/9 ELA, Mathematics Spring College Readiness
10 Summative Required PSAT 10 ELA, Mathematics Spring College Readiness
11 Summative Required MME: SAT with Essay ELA, Mathematics Spring College Readiness; accountability
11 Summative Required MME: M-STEP Science, Social Studies Spring Proficiency; accountability
11 Summative Required MME: ACT WorkKeys Reading, Mathematics Spring Career Readiness

The “Purpose” of Assessment

What’s the impact of such an overwhelming profusion of standardized tests?

  • more time spent on “test prep”, often consisting of rote, repetitive “drill & kill” practice sessions
  • less time spent on covering information that may not be on the exams
  • a myopic focus on only two academic subjects, reading and math
  • less time for music, art, PE, social studies, science, foreign languages, media studies, or any of the roughly 70% of the curriculum that includes what have come to be known as “untested subjects”

Perhaps more tragically, for many students this emphasis on testing has turned their time in school into a joyless, barren, stultifying experience characterized by a mind-numbing repetition of “test prep-review-test; test prep-review-test”, and little to no creativity, movement, personal expression or enjoyment of the process of learning.

It’s also important that as we compare these two approaches to assessment we make sure to keep in mind the purposes of assessment, which are:

  1. to improve instruction
  2. accountability: to evaluate school, teacher, or program effectiveness

It seems clear that with the current obsession with “accountability” in education being promoted by so many corporate education reform advocates and education policy makers–few of whom, it should be noted, have ever studied education, held teacher certification, or taught in a school–we have lost sight of the first purpose, and been forced to focus solely on the second.

For teachers, the most important use of any assessment tool is to help improve their teaching practices. This means that the results of these kinds of “formative” assessment tools must be made available immediately to teachers, so they can be used as a sort of “mid-course flight correction,” allowing teachers to adjust and modify their goals, objectives, and lesson plans while the course is in process.

With many standardized tests, this is impossible:

Four in 10 districts report having to wait between two months and four months before getting state test results. The lack of timely results means teachers begin a new school year not knowing where a student needs to improve.

Receiving test results for the 7th grade EOC math or English Language Arts test the following September, when those students have become 8th graders, effectively eliminates the usefulness of such an exam for diagnostic, pedagogical, or placement purposes. Because these test results are typically not disaggregated (i.e., scores for individual students are not provided; only school- or state-level standardized statistics are reported), the results can not be used by teachers to identify areas of strength or weakness for each student who took the exam, or to help that student improve their understanding of course material. In too many cases, the only useful “product” produced by the administration of these tests is the mountain of valuable, private student data harvested by the testing companies–but that’s a story for another day…

Now What?

So, going back to our original question: If these standardized tests are less than useful for determining what students know and can do, then how can we as teachers and parents find out how our children are doing in school?

Perhaps we can do what adults who care about children have always done when they are interested in the welfare of those children. We can…

  • ask our children how they are doing at school, and listen to what they say
  • help them with their school work as we are able; talk with them about what they are learning in school; and show them that we care about their learning
  • read, and sing, and draw, and dance with our children every day
  • encourage our children to read for pleasure as they are able, play with their friends, and find ways to be creative and express their feelings
  • go to parent-teacher conferences, and ask their teachers how our kids are doing in school
  • attend their concerts, and dance recitals, and art exhibits, and sporting events
  • discuss current events at home, and find ways to connect these happenings to what they are learning in school
  • encourage our children’s natural curiosity in science and history by asking how things work, visiting museums, using technology as developmentally appropriate

The notion that standardized tests are the only way we can understand what children know is naive, uninformed, ignorant, and ultimately insulting to anyone who cares about children as actualized human beings, with interests, feelings, and thoughts and opinions of their own. The idea that a single, reductionist test score can describe the totality of what a child has learned over the course of a semester, or an academic year, in a school subject is simply absurd–and reduces the process of learning into a string of random, isolated digits that represent none of the joy and excitement of discovery that characterizes the best kinds of knowledge acquisition.

The good news is that teachers and parents are already experts in doing all of these things.

Teachers know that understanding more about their students is key to helping those children learn, and for developing strategies for reaching every learner.

And parents know that showing an interest in their child’s learning goes far beyond literacy and numeracy, and includes all of their children’s interests and needs as learners–and persons.

The other bit of good news here is that these strategies produce information on student learning that’s rich, meaningful, interesting, and useful to all of the stakeholders engaged in public education. And these strategies encompass a much broader conception of “student learning” than solely reading and math–the subjects that serve as the narrow and impoverished view of “education” that has been adopted by the educational testing industry.

Boxes, Memories, and Haikus…

For many years my family had a lovely tradition around the holidays. As each of my siblings arrived at our mother’s home, she would walk us upstairs to the attic where 5 boxes were carefully stored–one for each of us. Sitting on the dusty floorboards, each of us would find “our” box, in which years of “school memorabilia” had been archived in chronological order. Turning the boxes upside down revealed an “archeological dig” of sorts, out tumbling a collection of school objects lovingly curated by our mother over the years.

My box, like those of my sister and brothers, contained a curious collection of educational artifacts. As I pawed through the pile of papers, work sheets, and drawings, the smell of glue and mimeographed pages triggered distant memories as though they’d occurred just yesterday…

  • in kindergarten we had a student teacher, and I had a massive crush on her (hi there, Ms. Longdecker, wherever you are!)–she had graded one of my “papers,” and I ran all the way home from school with the treasured paper clenched in my sweaty little fist, making my mom promise to never throw it away; to my everlasting surprise, she still has not…
  • in second grade I wrote a haiku about winter, and each time I re-discover that poem, now looking through my “teacher’s eyes,” I’m amazed that Mrs. Tierney had the ability, and quite frankly the courage, to try get a room full of easily distracted and rambunctious 7 and 8 year olds to settle down and focus long enough to teach them the rhyme structure of a Japanese literary form (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables), choose their own topics, and craft a poem whose beauty and elegance I doubt I could recreate to this day…

Scattered throughout the box is also a collection of other documents, uniform in size, color of paper, and contents. These are my report cards. And unlike the other artifacts in the box, these report cards evoke no smells, sounds, or memories of any kind about what was happening to me in my schooling.

These flat pieces of cardboard hold only a dizzying array of arcane jargon, fuzzy buzzwords, and scrawled letters and numbers intended to convey a rudimentary assessment of my “work” in various areas…mathematics, spelling, social studies, English, science…with an additional scrap of paper inserted with grades for the “special subjects”, such as art, music, and physical education–disciplines that evidently didn’t “make the cut” to be included on the “real” report card, and were relegated to their own, subsidiary addendum, as if these subjects were not quite “ready for the big time” of elementary school.

If our efforts to assess student learning are meant to convey a sense of our understanding of what students know, then which holds more valuable information? Those dusty report cards with their reductionist judgements of a student’s knowledge, or a diverse collection of student work and experiences that, when taken together collectively, draw a rich, detailed portrait of who a child is?

I’ll leave you with what I think is one of the most eloquent and poignant descriptions of the purpose of schooling, and how a more nuanced notion of assessment, measurement, and evaluation could offer a pathway toward this vision of schooling…

Our schools, teachers, and students might be a lot better off if schools embraced the idea that education means learning what to do when you don’t know what to do.

Elliott Eisner, 2005

[CC photo by albertogp123 | Flickr]