With the confirmation hearing for Arne Duncan today, I have some thoughts on the standardized testing that is such an integral part of No Child Left Behind. As some context, I administered the DC-BAS test (essentially a practice test for the DC-CAS in April) to my ninth graders today. It was not what I would call a joyful experience, but that's really irrelevant.
The three points I want to make are:
1.) Standardized testing is a good and useful thing.
2.) Standardized tests need to be truly "standardized," meaning that they are based on standards that we expect students to have mastered.
3.) Standardized testing only means "teaching to the test" when teachers aren't very good.
First, despite the fact that many teachers hate standardized testing, I think it's good. We need to have some system of assessment that objectively lets us know where our children are. It's fine for me to say that a student is making great progress, but we need quantitative proof. Standardized tests give us that in a way that nothing else can. We need to make sure that standardized tests really are as objective as possible (example: probably not a great idea to have black urban youths answerring questions about golf) but I think it's possible to have a set of knowledge we expect all students to have, and to assess that knowledge in a systematic way.
Second, standardized tests are only acceptable if they accurately assess what students are supposed to have learned. Today, I gave my students the DC-BAS test, which is nearly identical to the DC-CAS test that is taken at the end of the 10th grade year. My students could not do most of it, because they have only taken one semester of algebra and have taken no geometry. The test was not written to assess what they are supposed to know now, it was written to assess what they are supposed to know in 18 months. So, obviously, it was a waste of time. This is not the first time that I have seen standardized testing like this, and it bugs me. It was designed this way so that the adults who wrote it wouldn't have to spend time thinking about what the students were supposed to know. A test for 9th graders given in January should cover the first half of the algebra curriculum, and nothing more. A test for 10th graders given in October should cover all of Algebra and the very beginnings of Geometry, and nothing more. The way that the tests are designed now, we are teaching our children that this test is a thing that is supposed to make you feel stupid, and that is the message that they will carry with them into the real test. When we set up a system of assessments that is designed to assess what students are supposed to know, it will be acceptable to me.
Third, standardized testing does NOT mean "teaching to the test." I am so tired of hearing teachers complain about "teaching to the test." First off, if it's a well designed test, then teaching to the test means just regular good teaching. Second, just because creativity isn't on the test doesn't mean you don't teach it. I personally strive to teach beyond the test. Of course, that's a lot tougher said than done, but it's a goal that we should all share. We need to continue to pressure district and state administrators to refine the assessments so that they are fair and valid, but we need to stop whining about the notion that a test limits what you can teach.
To close, this quote from my student, J, regarding standardized testing:
"I know they gotta give us these tests, but for real these tests be making me want to steal somebody in they face."
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