On Standardized Tests

One of the major problems in education is that people are so focused on details and compliance that they often fail to take steps back and think about the big picture and larger purpose of their actions. One of the most obvious areas in which this occurs is standardized testing.

Testing or assessing is critical to the learning and all good teachers believe that and do it well. The purpose is to measure learning which means that we need to be able to do the following things:

1) Define what it is that the students are learning

So for example: are they learning that the Qin emperor was the first emperor of China or are they learning what his influence was? These are two very different cognitive functions. Is there a skill you are teaching or content? Because if you want them to write essays they should write but if it is just content, they could tell you orally.

Or as another example, if the goal is say, learning to make eye contact when people are speaking, it would be wildly inappropriate to use a multiple choice exam and make much more sense to have a conversation with the student.

There are many things we ask teachers to do but we often assess their performance on limited metrics which is why teachers are nervous about performance based pay. I don’t know any outstanding teacher who wouldn’t be ok with performance based pay if the metrics are fair but no one has come up with a fair metric.

And more importantly from my perspective as an activist, is that there is a huge gaps between what we say we are measuring learning and merit on and the way they are measured, so all conversations around this issue should begin with the question “what is it that we want students to know?” Often when we ask standardized test folks that question they don’t have a good answer for what cognitive skills and information they are assessing, which is why being in education often feels like a Kafka novel because they look at you like you are nuts and then say: the children, their learning! Without answering what they are learning which defeats the purpose of assessment.

2) Come up with a way that assesses that specific task or content.

In the example above, the fact that the Emperor Qin was the first emperor is easy to assess, you can ask them: who was the first emperor of China, give them four choices and move on, but his influence is subjective and requires an argument and there are multiple answers that are possible. Which is why multiple choice tests are only useful for factual information, and as much as I love crushing people in trivia, remembering that sort of thing isn’t really that useful to life and it is certainly not the most useful thing for them to know especially because we now have Wikipedia. That is why it is so problematic that our kids take so many standardized tests.

In the case of eye contact and the essays, those are performance based tasks and the only way to measure them is by actually having them do the task and I would argue that both of those things are way more important in life than trivia. The problem is that those those are subjective and hard to measure and it’s hard because we are really obsessed with objective data, accountability and numbers. We seem to have the belief that they have magical and mystical powers, and we could just as easily, and many societies have without difficulty, decide that they aren’t as important to the human experience.

3) The fact that we never question the what and how we are measuring creates huge equity issues

Rich kids don’t “perform” better because they learn better or know more or can do things better. I know a lot more things about the world than most of my rich friends, I can speak and think in ways they can’t and there are several things I can do that they cannot. I know, for example, how to act in a community, I can code switch, and unlike many of my friends, I can feed myself and care for children.

My poor students have strengths my rich students don’t have. The only reason we think they are low performing is because we measure them on assessments that measure the things that rich kids do well, like grammar and memorization.

And in some cases we don’t know what we are measuring and that results in profound cruelty, like when we asked disabled students to take tests on things we know they can’t do or when we give kids tests on things they haven’t even taken (which happens all around the country).

It is embarrassing to me as an educator how entrenched we’ve become about this issue and how rarely we ask why and how often we say “this is required, we have to.” That should be unacceptable for the people who care for our children and we should be taken to task for it.

If it isn’t benefitting the kids, it shouldn’t be happening, period.


3 thoughts on “On Standardized Tests

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