Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Obligatory Standardized Test Critique

"I don't think it's a coincidence that standardized examinations of a highly punitive and judgmental character have often been promoted most aggressively by those who also favor market competition in the educational arena, with the ultimate objective of establishing a universal voucher system in this nation." - Jonathan Kozol, Letters to a Young Teacher

I recommend the PBS documentary School to anyone interested in how our education system has evolved since Jefferson first recommend three years of non-compulsory education for everyone provided by the state. Most germane to my students and I last week was the history of the standardized test.

In the beginning, these tests were used to sort students into academic tracks, according to the series. Then, they were used as a benchmark to give teachers and school leaders ideas about how students were progressing and where they might need help. Many readers may remember the Standford 9s all ninth graders used to take here in Virginia.

Then came the "accountability" movement (quotations because I still haven't figured out who is supposed to be accountable to whom and by what means). We started using the tests to evaluate whether or not students were prepared to graduate and then if schools ought to be accredited. Most recently, these tests make up various percentages of teacher evaluations.

I don't have a problem with tests -- standardized or otherwise. I give my students assessments on a near-daily basis. Assessments aligned to objectives can lead to a rich and responsive curriculum that creates the sort of critical thinkers our society sorely needs. I have not seen one shred of evidence to suggest that the standardized tests the president wants to make part of the way I'm evaluated as a professional have anything to do with what happens in the seven weeks I had with my students before they took the English 11 Writing SOL. It makes no sense to me to argue about whether these tests should be 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation as they were in the recently-released (and much maligned) NYC teacher evaluations or 40 percent as my governor has suggested. We are asking these tests to do something they were never designed to do.

More importantly, these test seem really detrimental to students. I'm still amazed when students ask how a creative assignment will help them on the SOL or demand more explicit test prep because they know that the best way to increase test scores isn't a rich content knowledge but having an arsenal of test-taking strategies.

So, I can't help but wonder why we spend all this time hemming and hawing about how and when and why to administer these tests. Why don't we just make new ones correlated to real student outcomes and encouraging the critical thinking skills schools ought to foster rather than the test-taking strategies many seem to emphasize? We might also spend some time mulling over this reminder, often attributed to Albert Einstein, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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