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Friday, November 04, 2011

Standardized Testing: The Modern Bloodletting?



Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan -
It should be about the student!
My children take tests all week. They are in AP, accelerated classes and they have to take them. This isn't really about that kind of test. I've been thinking about the modern implementation of the standardized testing procedure.

What if we had a modern doctor that practiced bloodletting?
Protests. An angry outcry against a practioner who had ingnored the past 200 years of medicine to go back to the archaic and harmful habit of draining a sick person's blood into a bowl in order to remove the body of impurities. Complete and utter nonsense. Not only nonsense, harmful.

Is standardized testing a modern day bloodletting? Perhaps not that extreme, but extreme enough to have an outcry from the masses demanding that education system be reformed. At the heart of this outcry is perhaps the standardized testing-centric curricula and methods we've adapted in order to "improve our scores."

So you want to know why this overtesting has made so many mad?

Here are the reasons I think that the modern implementation of the archaic standardized test scrapes at the sensibilities of a modern parent and teacher.

1 - The intense "drill and kill" leading up to the test themselves.
Runners know that in order to prepare for a big run, they must first scale back. In fact, no runner competing in a big race would schedule another big race in the two weeks prior. This is because the body needs time to recover. If you give everything you have, you don't have anything to give in the big race, especially when you need that extra kick. So, you drill and work hard and then a week prior you begin your taper, which is enough work to get you ready for the big day.

There is no taper in this activity. In fact, some schools give their own versions of the standardized test throughout the year to try to diagnose problems. Some even the day before. They figure if they give a monstrous test the day before the big test that things will be fresh on the student's minds. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but the fact is that the student who is supposed to do well on the test is exhausted.

2 - The intense pressure adults put on the kids about the tests
We do pep rallies, we lecture. We cajole. We bribe. We do everything we can to get the kids to take the test "seriously." In doing so, we perk up the ears of the majorly rebellious and perhaps all the kids. Except for graduation tests or advancement tests, the kids rarely have any "skin in the game" the only way the tests are high stakes is when the school is involved. Many parents don't have "skin in the game" either. Those who care have kids who make better test scores.

This is kind of like having a group of runners and telling them that if they can finish as a group, first, that their coaches will get a ribbon. The students won't get a trophy on their wall or a picture or anything. Just the coaches. While some students love their coaches enough to do this, it is rare.

Additionally, we don't even tell the kids if they won or not. We don't show them their test scores. They don't know how they did. It is a black box of agony and they don't see the point.

3- Measures of improvement are unrealistic
Our football team right now is entering the playoffs. While the coaches want to win as much as the students, these playoffs are about the kids on the field. Coaches know that some years they have more talent than others and do the best to win with what they have. We've had 23 games of winning in a row. Our coaches have done a great job advancing our kids and improving every single game.

But to tell them that they have to keep winning forever and always be better. Is that realistic. All schools go through an ebb and flow. For whatever reason, we don't know, some of our classes at school are full of boys and others are a mix of boys and girls. We don't know why. Sometimes the same happens with academics. We have a strong class one year and the next year the class isn't so strong.

4- We're not measuring the delta but rather a raw, unscientific measure of scores
To be fair, you should measure a single class all the way through and how that class advances. To compare one year of eighth graders to the next isn't an apples to apples comparison. A set of kids may have a great test score but compared to their prior year, they fell back. To compare this year's 8th grade to last year's 8th grade (unless you have an incredibly large "sample size") in most schools just isn't a fair comparison of whether the school improved. A measure of this year's 8th grade to the scores of the same students last year is a better measure. We're not looking at the delta.

The delta is the change. To be the most fair, a student's test scores would travel with him/her no matter what school the child went to. Each year, a child would have their scores this year versus their scores last year compared and the delta would be calculated. (The increase or decrease.) The addition of all of those deltas would help us see if those students were improving or not improving.

You'd also have to factor in that at some age levels kids naturally improve more than at others. (During puberty, for example, a child has a problem learning a lot and you're lucky if they hold steady - their body is just too busy doing other things to learn a lot. -- Geil Browning of Emergentics told us this at a Leadership Georgia workshop some time back.)

Material is everything. My husband runs several production lines.He runs the same line every day. Sometimes everything goes wrong in the line. It might be the temperature or a certain person who is out who is a key player but most often it is something subtle wrong with the materials.

You can't always blame it on the kids. But the fact is that some classes are smarter than others. For whatever reason, who knows. But the fact is there. So it becomes a matter of punishing a school when they have a class that doesn't measure up to the prior year.

5 - The test is standard
When you have a standard test, you make it easy to cheat. Everyone is given the same test. The stakes are high. The kids don't care. This class of kids is not as smart. I may lose my job. My husband lost his job and I can't afford to lose my job. What can I do? I've taught them everything I can. What is going to happen?

There is no excuse for cheating. None. But when met with a hopeless situation there are very few people who will fall on their sword. There just are. Teaching is noble and when teachers cheat it brings us all down. If you're perfect, please message me on Twitter, so I can meet you. I am not excusing the cheating but I am saying that good teachers make bad mistakes every day. Usually when we're tired or upset or under a lot of pressure but it happens.

The real world isn't standard.
One year I was upset about one of my children's K4 performance on the "environment section" of the standardized test. The teacher showed me what he missed. He didn't properly identify a SUBWAY TURNSTILE. He also didn't identify a judge (shown in a gray english style wig with a gavel) and he didn't know what a bus stop was. While my urban counterparts may argue that every 4 year old should have been on a subway, we are in a rural community and that is simply unimportant for a 4 year old to know here.

Schools teach different things. They are in different environments. The things that call out words and experiences that most kids have in urban areas penalize rural students and vice versa. There should be a way to control for this, however, we are trying to standardize.

The real world isn't multiple choice.
There are only 4 answers - multiple choice. In the real world when a factory worker needs to use a gauge to measure, there are no multiple choice answers. I know a local plant that turns away 80% of applicants because they don't know fractions. Even more than that they have to take metric, convert to inches and go back to metric again.

The reason we did multiple choice in the first place was so a computer could grade it an we could test cheaply. The only reason we keep doing it is because the testing companies prefer it that way. There is no reason at all to keep having multiple choice as the only mode of input. That is ludicrous.

Why don't we have adaptive testing?
Right now, if a child doesn't know decimals he/she may still have to answer 10 decimal questions. How many questions does it take to know a child doesn't know decimals? Probably just two or three. At that point, a computer could start going "down" to see if a child knows fractions. It should adapt and say "OK, what does this child know?"

If a child is reading below grade level, the test is on grade level. If they can't read it, they can't answer the questions. At all. The entire reading section is pointless. Instead, the test should adapt and say, "OK, what reading level IS this child on?" The same with every subject.

The fact is paper and pencil can't adapt. And adaptive testing is really about personalizing the knowledge of the student. It is about understanding the individual student. If we can understand enough individual students and then aggregate that together then a school can create a plan to help those students progress and move ahead.

But it isn't about really understanding and helping an individual student at all. No. It seems to be more about finding more heads to put on pikes than it is about helping every child get ahead.

A paper, standard, non adaptive test is a waste of time for a child who is underperforming. It is also a waste of time for a child who is overperforming. One of mine scores 99% on math every year. Well, how high is this child in math, anyway? We do not know, "because the test only goes up to a certain grade level and then it stops." We could have some real math prodigies among us and not know it. If a child is exceptionally gifted in an area, that test should adapt and go up to the level so we can see where that child really is.

Teach well and test when it is time.
At our school we just teach away, take a few days to test and then we keep teaching. Not much of a lead in. Not a big fanfare. We just work hard to teach exceptionally well and then we take a look at what happened. Our leaders look at the teachers to see if a class of kids drops from one year to the next to see if there is a weak link.

The parents get a copy of the test scores. I always tell my children their strengths and their areas where they are going to have to work.

Standardized Testing: The Modern Bloodletting
So, all of these things add together to go against the modern sensibilities of parents. When they see questions that don't line up to experiences and to the curriculum of the local school. When they see their children stressing out. When they see test prep starting earlier and earlier and even going year around. They realize that the customer is wrong.

The customer of education should be the individual child about 5-10 years after getting out of high school. Is that child thankful and feel well prepared for being successful in the world? Did that child learn something to make their life better.

The customer of education has become the DOE and the standardized testing data keepers who determine the money and resources that flow to a school because of  a test score that is flawed at its very core.

Many of us are sick and tired of what public education has become because we see that the students coming out are not well educated.

Perhaps I should go back and restate. I think that perhaps standardized testing is the modern bloodletting of education. We are zapping our resources, our time, and our energy on something that is not truly measuring what our kids are learning. We are bringing all of the kids to the middle and bringing down our gifted and we are missing a valuable opportunity to really personalize learning for students.

The fact is that we are falling behind in international test scores. Is it because we're so busy testing that we've hurt learning? Is our desire to improve our test scores actually having the opposite effect because we're focusing on the wrong thing? We have to get better, but how.

If you improve every student in the country then the entire country will improve.

But some will say that this isn't about the student anyway.

And such is my point.
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