Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Complete List of Problems with High Stakes Testing

This comment is in response to this link:

The Complete List of Problems with High Stakes Testing

As the comments to the original article demonstrate, this isn't exactly the complete list of problems with high stakes testing.  From my viewpoint, Marion Brady is hitting some of the major problems with the tests.  I would only add a few things for a bit different emphasis.

"Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback; are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893; lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning..."

There are several points to be made here.  First of all, there ARE standardized tests that provide useful and immediate feedback.  Computerized adaptive testing is getting better and better.  I dabbled with using these kinds of tests more than 10 years ago.  At that time, there was a concern that some students would find the computerized testing environment too intimidating.  I think that worry has greatly diminished, as students repeatedly demonstrate that they are quite adept at handling the computers, thank you very much.  The advantage of CAT is that it gives virtually immediate results and those results can potentially cover a wider range than most of the standardized tests that are used for high stakes testing.  Instead of the 3 or 4 grade levels covered by the high stakes tests, CATs can cover more ability levels.  On the high stakes tests, a 3rd grader would typically see material designed for 1st through perhaps 5th grades.  On a CAT test, a 3rd grader could see material designed for pre-school or Kindergarten all the way up to the top level of the test, probably 12th grade, depending on how successfully s/he answered the questions.  The feedback provided to the teacher can be quite specific, down to exactly which items caused the student problems.  Aggregate statistics are available, too - and immediately.  If a teacher sees that a large number of his/her students are having trouble with capitalization, s/he can add a few extra lessons on the subject in short order.  With high stakes testing, the results are usually not available until this year's class has already moved on.

The second major point I would like to make is that it is not just P.E., art, music, and drama that are suffering.  It is also science and social studies.  As tests get added for science and social studies, perhaps this won't be quite as apparent.  But right now, science, especially, is suffering.  What used to be taught daily is now relegated to once or twice a week.  And, since setting up for, and cleaning up after hands-on experiments takes too much time, a lot of the science that is taught is done in the form of a reading lesson.  The "literacy block" and the "math block" take up huge portions of the day and science and social studies have taken a back seat.

"Teachers oppose the tests because they reduce teacher creativity and the appeal of teaching as a profession..."

Yes, indeed.  There is a lot of pressure on teachers to make sure that they "cover" the curriculum.  The spontaneous discussion, the divergent anecdote, the ability to listen whole-heartedly to what the students are saying - these things are sometimes lost, under pressure to cover everything they are responsible for. 

"...lead to the neglect of the best and worst students as resources are channeled to lift marginal kids above pass-fail 'cut lines'..."

Those who know me know that I am deeply interested in gifted kids.  It seems to me that the needs of gifted kids are being greatly neglected, because of this emphasis on helping the marginal kids succeed.   All kids are in school for the purpose of learning, but gifted kids especially are learning a lot less that they need to learn.  There is a proverb that goes something like: if you feed a mouse a grain of corn, he may feel nourished and full; if you give that same grain of corn to an elephant, he may not even notice that he has been fed.  Is it right to make the gifted child sit in class day after day, year after year, with only a few grains of corn? 

Another thing that I dislike about the high stakes tests is the fact that so much time now is spent teaching to the test.  It isn't bad to learn to write a 5 paragraph essay, but that isn't the only form that essays can take - nor is it always the most effective.  But many students will never learn anything else.

I have actually taught some of the test prep materials in the classroom.  The materials themselves are sometimes worthwhile, but these are things that should be part of the regular curriculum if they are important.  Teaching them as part of test prep only makes the students think that they are only important on the tests and then can be dropped when the tests are done.  Their impressions are usually validated. 

There are many problems with high stakes testing and fairness - both toward students and toward teachers.  Marion Brady covered a lot of the problems, but I wouldn't consider his list "complete". 

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