Imagine that I am a teacher who has been instructing a unit on multiplication tables. I test my students on their grasp of the material. They are not where I would like them to be. I decide that I will stick with the unit a little longer and try a new educational game. I also notice some students are really struggling. I make dates to meet with their parents to see if there are ways I can adapt the materials to their needs.
Wrong! At a number of steps I have made decisions.
I decided the material was a discrete and testable unit. I chose to test all the students and set a time.
I presented the material as a matrix of simple rote memory multiplication problems printed on a sheet of paper. Granted, I didn’t have that many options. If I had been a high school teacher assessing students’ grasp of “Romeo and Juliet,” I would have had plenty.
I had decided to do a formative test, one that would help me fine-tune my math teaching. In contrast, a summative evaluation occurs at the end of a discrete time — say a college class or academic year — and determines if a student has mastered the material adequately to pass.
I decided who would see the results. I gave feedback to the students in the form of their corrected test papers. I shared the papers of the students about whom I was concerned with their parents.
In even this fairly straightforward example, there were a number of decisions I made as hypothetical teacher. Can you imagine how many decision points there are in the administration of state or nationwide standardized tests? It is the way these decisions are made that bothers a number of us who are less than enthusiastic about their proliferation and centrality in our children’s education. Three decision points in particular are content choice, methods choice and use of results.
Especially when you get away from fairly linear subjects such as math, there is a world of material that can be included. What literature must an eighth-grader be conversant with? How do you make sure bias doesn’t enter into author selection? Then, even if everyone agrees that “To Kill A Mockingbird” is essential, a computer test might not be the way many students show their comprehension best. A child who can turn a part into a play or create artwork based on the novel can understand it brilliantly yet turn in a lackluster exam performance.
Probably the most hot-button issue, though, is how the results are overused and abused.
In Maine, a school’s standardized test results will be boiled down to a single letter grade that characterizes a school’s status. Much rides on a single snapshot out of a year’s complexity. At the very least this is simplistic. But wait a minute. Test scores correlate almost perfectly with level of wealth in communities, something that is not in a school district’s control.
There also is a push to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness using student test scores. I guess that means those who snag the creme de la creme AP crowd are better teachers than those who work with students learning at more basic levels. The very gifted folks who work with special-needs children are in special peril here.
Even the dire, high-stakes nature of the tests is not good. When people are afraid, bad things happen. Those examples you read about in the paper where teachers and administrators do stuff such as falsifying student data are just the tip of a rather large iceberg. Some systems have ways of getting rid of low-scoring students. Boys of color and those who have special needs are in much more danger of suspension or expulsion than white classroom peers in regular education.
When schools and the professionals who run them live or die by test scores, it should be no surprise when teaching to the test becomes a survival tactic. Who loses there? All children. They don’t call it drill and kill for nothing. Rich, transformative, far-from-standardized experiences are what motivate and challenge our children and deeply engage them in learning. The children pulling down the worst scores are even often deprived of art, music and physical education.
Standardized tests are a human creation with numerous decision points. As such, they are highly fallible. Let the teacher, student and parent be savvy and questioning.
Julia Emily Hathaway is the vice chair of the Veazie School Committee, a poet and a proud mother of three.