Unintended Consequences of Making Standardized Tests the Enemy

President Obama’s “2%” video has generated a number of claims, counterclaims, rants and praise. Larry Ferlazzo rounded up many of them if you’re looking for texts that support your opinion or challenge it. There’s a lot to be said about it and there’s a text written basically for every possible counterclaim or supporting claim. My general take away vacillates between “meh” as unless Congress changes ESEA, state-wide annual tests will persist and yeah! let’s talk about what healthy assessment systems look like! The challenge remains, though, around how to deal with mandates – to leverage them to support student learning, to ignore them, to advocate parents opt their children out to send a message, or door #4. Regardless, it’s a deeply personal decision every educator, school, and district must make.

That, however, is not the issue at hand or why I dusted off my semi-irregular blog. I get ranty about semantics and I own it. It comes from a place of absolute adoration for the teaching profession. Since my first ed course in college, I’ve loved the hubris that comes with labeling, describing, and attempting to capture the unseeable. It’s the place that made me comfortable as a young teacher to speak up when a teacher’s aide referred to my students with special needs as “TMR.” In her day, “Trainable Mentally Retarded” was an acceptable moniker for a certain type of student. I had the concept of “people first language” to fall back on and the rules of the framework to help me find the words to speak up and find a way through the awkwardness.

It’s the love for the language of teaching and learning that rears up occasionally and results in me offering unsolicited opinions. Before I offer up the claim I disagree with for semantical reasons, I’d like to lay out the evidence for my counter-claim.

  • Ever give the same test or task to a group of students?Ever use an answer key to score students’ test?
  • Ever use an answer key to score students’ test?Ever ask students to hand in their work after a certain period of time?
  • Ever ask students to hand in their work after a certain period of time?
  • Ever assign a grade on a scale of 0-100 with a pass/fail cutpoint (i.e. 65)?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you’ve given a standardized test.
Ever talk with other teachers to reach consensus around what quality work looks like?
Ever set aside examples of student work to refer to later as an example of a “good” paper?
Ever review a task to make sure it’s fair, accessible to students with disabilities, free of bias?
If your answer is yes, then you’ve used standardization to help you do your job.
Peter Greene wrote a post in response to Obama’s comment titled The Correct Number of Standardized Tests. His claim is that the correct number is zero. He says, “Students need standardized tests like a fish needs a bicycle.” If that’s the case, then it raises a whole slew of questions about grades, final exams, and what it means to fairly assess students. Meanwhile, the NYS Performance Consortium uses standardized processes.

These teachers in NH are using standardized tests (which are actually performance tasks) to assess their students. And more to the point, when you ask Kiana Hernandez about standardized tests, she talks about those created by the state, her district, and her teachers.

I recognize that his point isn’t about standardized tests per se but the large-scale once a year tests. However, he ends his post with “the number of necessary standardized tests is zero.” I’m all about performance tasks, portfolios, and authentic assessment. I’m all about the maker movement and kids doing things in school that have meaning to them outside of school. I’m also all about the profession of teaching and having a robust public education system. I want there to be a standardized approach to how we collect large-scale evidence of learning in order to inform systemic decisions and policy. Right now, we’re using multiple choice because they’re easy, familiar, and faster than the alternative. Hopefully, we’ll move to a system like what NH is cooking up where the tasks are embedded within the curriculum and assessment is a part of a learning, not an interruption. But even when we get there, there will still be a need for some degree of standardization. To suggest that standardization itself is a problem … well, that’s a whole nother case of worms about the purpose of public education and society.

The aide in my school way back when didn’t mean my students were “trainable.” She didn’t think less of them, she was used to “TMR” and rattled it off as a placeholder for “the students with mild to moderate disabilities in the 15:1 math class but in a general education class for Science and Social Studies.” I suspect Greene is using “standardized tests” as a placeholder for “the tests given once a year that cause an incredible amount of stress and do little to inform what happens in my classroom.” I go back to the questions I asked in my semantics post: What’s gained or lost by using or not using precise language? What does the profession gain or lose when using shorthand to refer to a given concept or idea?

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