Grading Standardized Tests

Tests effective?
The news last week about Minnesota’s standardized reading scores reminded me how much I hate standardized tests. In my considered opinion, one-size-fits all standardized tests are the absolute worst tools I have seen for improving education.

Except for all the other options available to us.

Before explaining my Churchillian verdict on standardized tests, I should mention that I was a very poor standardized test taker back in the day. When I should have been answering questions, I tended to be thinking about why they asked the question…or why they used that particular wording…or what kind of deductive mind games they were trying to play…or what kind of test scores Charlie on Charlie’s Angels got in order to land that awesome job…or what is so special about #2 pencils for chrissake…or why the cute girl three rows over would never be interested in a guy like me, or why… And then when they announced there was one minute left before our life’s course would be charted by optical mark recognition equipment, I would guess “C” on the large portion of the test that I had not yet read.

Maybe that shows that I had an attention deficit disorder. Maybe it means I was analytical, creative, intellectually curious, hormonal, or moronic.

Psychoanalysis aside, this was not a winning strategy for me. It also wasn’t a winning strategy for the institutions who wanted an honest assessment of my likelihood of success. Because I turned out to be a “late bloomer,” someone who wasn’t predicted by the optical recognition scanner to succeed in academics or a white collar career, but did.

Given my personal experience, you would think that I’d want to ban standardized tests. I’m sorely tempted. But at the same time, I do think that K-12 schools need to be intentional and disciplined about teaching the foundational skills most of us need to succeed. I do want to keep kids away from teachers and schools who can’t or won’t teach those things. I do want to measure student performance in order to incent individual and institutional improvement, empower parents to vote with their feet, and target early help to kids who are falling behind.

And I can’t figure out how to achieve those things without standardized tests. Maybe those of you who got kickass standardized test scores can figure that out, but I can’t.

At the same time, I agree with those who say we need to weigh test results with an understanding that some teachers have much more challenging teaching assignments than others. And of course, we should eliminate duplicative testing and continually improve the testing tools to make sure they aren’t biased, and measure what they’re intending to measure. I’m in complete agreement with those who say we need to also teach subjects not covered on the tests, such as art, music, logic, economics, social studies, foreign languages, literature, communications and others. And yes, I realize that my “all of the above” education strategy will cost more. Send me a bill; I’ll enthusiastically pay my fair share.

But as much as I loathe the standardized test scores that nearly made a sanitary engineer out of me, I honestly just can’t think of a better way to solve these difficult problems. In other words, I’m still guessing “C.”

– Loveland

12 thoughts on “Grading Standardized Tests

  1. PM. says:

    I definitely think that there is a role for standardized tests, just not as big a one as their proponents suggest.

    Standardized tests are great because they are, well, standardized. It is the same test, and everyone should take them. That said, the most important metric should be year over year improvement of each school/teacher/student, as opposed to comparisons between schools/teachers/students. The longitudinal measurements are far more meaningful than the latitudinal ones. Further, these measurements are more important for those who have the ability to make changes to improve scores–for example, the leadership team at any one school is more responsible for the overall school scores than any one teacher for their class scores (due to the possible distribution of students, etc.). For individual teachers, it is better to measure progress over the course of a year (scores at the start of the year vs. scores at the end of the year).

    Still, there is much that can not be caught by these tests, and it is important that other measurements also be included.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Really thoughtful post. Unfortunately, teacher haters use the tests to bash teachers, and status quo apologists dismiss tests to block reform. But the problem in both cases is associated with the advocates, not necessarily the test.

      Looking at longitudinal progress of students as a block, don’t you think you can identify the really fantastic teachers and the teachers who just don’t have the talent to do the job?

  2. Newt says:

    If schools can’t establish a baseline, they have no way of knowing if students are improving.

    Educators hate them because student achievement has been steadily dropping. Taxpayers wonder why the perennial cries for more money haven’t yielded any results.

    I sucked a test taking, but scored high in IQ. Still, I think they accurately rated me for how much/little I learned.

  3. PM. says:

    Here is a timely and very interesting look at schools and education policy from the Economist:

    http://www.economist.com/node/21529014

    Not really much here on standardized testing, but a couple of things that stuck out to me are:
    1. the link between spending per student and performance is pretty weak
    2. it is very helpful to have many different kinds of schools
    3. good quality teachers are probably the single most important part of a strong educational system.

    It is pretty well known that teaching in the US is not a high status occupation. Generally, the people who go into teaching as a profession are people who were in the bottom 2 quintiles of their high school class. Generally not the best and the brightest (there are certainly exceptions, but…). Frequently, they are people who want to stay in a system that they know and are comfortable with–not risk takers. Often, schools as institutions are designed to rewards rule followers, not the innovators, etc. many schools are profoundly conservative, and resist change and innovation. This is one of the things that Teach For America was designed to address.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Help me reconcile findings 1 and 3. Wouldn’t spending more to pay teachers more tend to draw more of the bright, ambitious, creative risk takers the experts say we need in classrooms? If we paid doctors $50K/year, wouldn’t we have a different group of people going into medicine than we do now? I have a hard time believing that salary doesn’t matter in terms of recruitment and retention of the best.

      1. PM. says:

        yeah, but paying more to those who are already teaching will not help at all.

        Think of it as the difference between a short term solution and a long term solution–raising pay in the short term will not make a difference, but raising the status of teaching over a generation would make a difference. Pay and status are not the same thing, but they are related.

  4. Remember Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

    The Finns — whose schools currently come out on top worldwide — do no standardized testing at all.

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      I wonder how we know the Finns are best if the little Finnsters don’t take any tests to confirm that. I’m not being snotty. I’m just genuinely curious about that.

      1. My statement that the Finns do no standardized testing at all would have been more correct if I had said they do no annual, all-student testing. They take part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests with a subset of 15-year-old students, using the same sampling method as other countries that participate in PISA.

  5. Joe Loveland says:

    Part of my problem with standardized tests was that I’m a slow reader, and then I’d get anxious about not keeping up, and then get anxious about being anxious. But this was also part of my problem:

  6. John Gaterud says:

    Student for years. Taught even longer. Hated tests. And hated grades (and grading) even more. “Assessment” in routinized, standardized forms of “testing” is a disease at all levels of education (K through grad school), I’ve concluded. Students (“learners”), self included, seem to benefit far more from engaged interaction between/among peers and teachers, where mutual respect and genuine curiosity for free inquiry/discovery about how the world works—through reading, writing, traveling, talking, creating, working, “doing”—opens minds, and, thus, opportunities. Sure, ABC+123 and related socializing effects are important—and essential. Absolutely. But school as “institution,” complete with its entrenched culture of rules/strictures/bureaucracies (and stubborn reliance on testing, as Joe argues here) short-circuits real learning, I believe. I left teaching for a hundred reasons, some bitter, I confess—including cumulative resentment over standardized “self-assessment” (i.e., “professional development”), in which I was repeatedly required to “prove” my “worth” by drafting/filing endless, dreary, insulting, and, ultimately, pointless documents for the presumed judgment of me by “superiors” (reports of which, near the end, also included, via contractual agreement, views about my classroom “performance” by equally myopic colleagues). Soured me, sorry to say, on the entire enterprise. Just another brick.

    Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner’s “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” still offers a model, but their ideas, like those of so many reformers, get buried beneath the claptrap. Twain’s admonishment—Don’t let school get in the way of your education—seems more relevant than ever.

    As student and teacher, I always loved it when the lights “lit.” But when that happened, the tests, grade books, and assessments were nowhere in sight.

    Real change in institutional attitudes/policies/procedures regarding testing may be as likely as sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker in the swamps of Arkansas.

    Or, as Dylan puts it, “All I can say is,’Good luck.'”

  7. Joe Loveland says:

    MinnPost’s terrific education reporter Beth Hawkins today takes a look at schools that are beating the odds and doing better than others in terms of the achievement gap. I recommend the whole article, but here is a taste:

    Eight of the top-10 math achievers are charter schools, as are nine of the 10 schools that beat the odds in reading. Many of them made appearances last year, too.

    Many offer “wrap-around” services that connect kids and parents with health care, mental health care, vision and dental care, language skills, housing assistance and so on.

    Five of the top math scorers and four of the reading odds-beaters are members of a network called Charter School Partners that seeks to identify and replicate gap-closing strategies. The exact mix varies from school to school, but all have longer days and years, rigorous expectations for continuous improvement by teachers, strong leaders and a relentless reliance on data.

    Let’s pause for a moment to expand on this last point: We’re not talking about MCA data, but about Friday afternoon math quizzes, spelling exams delivered on the fly and other “formative assessments” that tell teachers precisely which skills individual kids need.

    Typically, a teacher reaches about 70 percent of students with their first lesson. Some of the remainder require reinforcement and some require a different approach altogether, or they may never get a potentially progress-halting concept like, say, counting by tens.

    Teachers in many of these schools work in teams; all team members consider student data together and discuss the best interventions.
    ‘The genius of charter schools … it’s flexibility’

    The magic of the charter isn’t the nature of the school’s legal formation per se, CSP’s Brian Sweeney pointed out: “The genius of charter schools isn’t that they’re going to find a new way to teach kids to read. It’s flexibility.”

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