ExcellentemailLet me clear something up. Those of us who are against excessive, high-stakes testing in schools are NOT opposed to assessment. Of course we want to know how our kids are doing. And we understand that not every school is wonderful, so there needs to be a way to compare kids’ learning across the city, state and country. That said, there are multiple problems with the way high-stakes tests (meaning tests that have real, potentially brutal repercussions for students and schools, not tests whose results are used merely for data-gathering) are used in schools now.

1. They push out meaningful, nuanced lessons in favor of drill-and-kill test prep, because the consequences of scoring poorly (reduced funding for the school, punitive action towards principals) are just too high. I thought this No Child Left Behind article in Parenting was just brilliant, in part because it did strive to show both sides of the story and doesn’t come from an a foaming-at-the-mouth haterade-swilling anti-testing activist hippie.

2. They freak out kids beyond all reasonable measure. The Parenting piece quotes a VP at the National Education Association: “One school secretary said that because the state requires every test to be submitted, she had taken to giving the elementary school teachers Ziploc bags and rubber gloves so they could wipe the vomit from the sheets and send them off in plastic.” I know we had pukers at my kids’ school too. No small child should have to experience this kind of stress.

3. Bureaucrats misuse the data they get. As Professor David Koretz, who teaches educational measurement at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has pointed out, testing experts have warned for years that test results from a single year are highly error-prone. Yet these results can be used for promotion of individual kids and for funding decisions for individual schools. And frequently testers compare apples and oranges, looking at the scores of the third grade, year after year, say, rather than tracking how the same children performed from one year to the next.

4. The tests themselves suck. You can see for yourself here and here, by taking part of the 2006 English Language Arts test for New York State yourself. Dude, I’m a magna cum laude Harvard grad with a double concentration in two writing-y things (English and Folklore & Mythology) and I still could have gotten a 2 (out of 4) on a test for fourth graders! (Fine, insert your own Harvard joke here.) I say “could have gotten” because it’s clear that much depends on the individual quirks of the test-scorer. A recent NYT op-ed by an actual former ELA test scorer for 4th graders proves that grading is seriously…uh, unpredictable. Todd Farley, who was a grad student earning $8/hour to score ELA tests and is the author of the Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, writes:

One of the tests I scored had students read a passage about bicycle safety. They were then instructed to draw a poster that illustrated a rule that was indicated in the text. We would award one point for a poster that included a correct rule and zero for a drawing that did not.

The first poster I saw was a drawing of a young cyclist, a helmet tightly attached to his head, flying his bike over a canal filled with flaming oil, his two arms waving wildly in the air. I stared at the response for minutes. Was this a picture of a helmet-wearing child who understood the basic rules of bike safety? Or was it meant to portray a youngster killing himself on two wheels?

I was not the only one who was confused. Soon several of my fellow scorers — pretty much people off the street, like me — were debating my poster, some positing that it clearly showed an understanding of bike safety while others argued that it most certainly did not. I realized then — an epiphany confirmed over a decade and a half of experience in the testing industry — that the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.

He also writes amusingly about a debate in the workroom about how to score a ninth grader’s essay about Debbie Does Dallas. He wanted to give it a 6, the highest score, because it was very well-written and followed the directions of the assignment. Another scorer wanted to give it a 3, because the excellent writing was offset by the “inappropriate” subject. A third colleague argued for a 0 because it was “filth.” (Ultimately, the kid got a 0.) Did I say this was “amusing”? Oops. I meant “sickening.” Especially if that kid was yours. Upshot: the scoring is wack, and the tests aren’t written by educators but by underpaid serial-test-writers at companies like McGraw-Hill.

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this. When our school’s letter grade (based largely on these tests) plummeted last year, I tried to explain why to anxious parents. (As I posted elsewhere, a further problem with a tiny school like ours is that small changes in raw score create HUGE percentile swings — if you’re only testing 30 kids, if 3 kids score lower than 3 kids did last year, that’s gonna have a MUNGO impact, and do not ask me how MUNGO, because I had crappy math education — despite my excellent scores on many math tests! — and can’t actually DO this math! Oh, plus the letter grade factors in how many kids are late to school, and since three kids experienced a Department of Education busing glitch for several months, our “lateness” score was ass.) But parents, who want the best for their kids, were genuinely worried that somehow the school had gotten much worse since its last letter grade. Some wanted more testing, more textbooks, less art and music.

Today I got my lapels figuratively grabbed (note: I have no lapels) by a mom who feels the school does not adequately address the needs of its “high achievers.” I disagree. My big girl is, on paper, a mega-high achiever. And I do feel she’s being challenged. Last year she was sent to an older grade to get books, after she’d exhausted her classroom library. She got different spelling words from kids who weren’t as verbal. (The school does really well, I think, with individualized instruction. There were a LOT of different sets of vocab words in that classroom.) But even more important than her academic ass-kicking, I feel, is the emphasis the school puts on trying your best, appreciating everyone else’s efforts, and valuing difference. At drop-off, another parent told me that her son’s class is working on the structure of the brain, using models and starting to learn basic neuroscience. (Um, HI. HELLO. NEUROSCIENCE. These kids are NINE.) The teacher is interested in Carol Dweck’s research about how kids who view intelligence as a muscle, as opposed to a fixed trait, are less fearful of failing and more eager to take risks and work hard.  So she’s showing them how the brain actually works.

This is good. This is learning that a standardized test won’t measure — and not just because it’s teaching values as well as facts.

One Comment

  1. Robin Aronson October 8, 2009 at 9:03 am


    And also, I have a not so pet peeve about parents who think their kids aren’t challenged enough. It stresses me out so bad.

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