Reform the Tests! As they are, they don’t test anything important!

A brilliant article by Marion Brady, reprinted by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.

Brady points out that what we are actually testing with NCLB, RTTT and so in is worse than useless. What needs to happen is that the tests themselves need to be drastically changed in ways that actually teach higher-order thinking skills. I only quote a small  excerpt to try to get you to read the entire, well-reasoned article:

” If higher order thinking skills are tested, teachers will teach them. Those who don’t know how will quickly learn.

 Of course, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Educational Testing Service, and other test manufacturers aren’t going to volunteer to test student-initiated higher order thinking skills. Neither are the politicians they help elect and re-elect going to make them even try to do so unless they think voters give them no alternative.

So voters should give them no alternative. Unless politicians and test manufacturers can make a convincing case for not teaching the young to think, they should be told what they’ve been telling teachers who say standardized tests are a waste of time and money: “No excuses!”

It’s likely that nothing short of binding agreements between states and test manufacturers will yield the new tests. To that end, in appropriate legal language, contracts should make clear that (a) every test question in every subject will evaluate a particular, named thinking skill, (b) every test will evaluate a balanced mix of all known thinking skills, and (c) a panel of experts not connected to test manufacturers or politicians will preview all test items to assure contract compliance. No excuses.

Fairtest, Parents Across America, United Opt Out National, and other state and local organizations have strategies in place to try to persuade. Petitions and referendums invite signers. Parents, grandparents — indeed, all who care about kids and country — should get on board.

 No more multimillion dollar checks for tests that no one but manufacturers are allowed to see. No more tests the pass-fail cut scores of which can be raised and lowered to make political points. No more kids labeled and discarded, every one with a brain wired to do all sorts of amazing things. If storing trivia in short-term memory doesn’t happen to be one of those things, that shouldn’t put them out of school and on the street.”

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I liked what he implied initially – about getting rid of standardized tests altogether.


  2. There is no relationship between “higher-order thinking” and test item format. Look at a practice test for the Law School Admission Test, any Graduate Record Exam, an SAT or an ACT for verification. Multiple-choice, or other types of constrained format test items can test most levels and types of thinking. They are not good at testing highly subjective topics, such as art, ergo the art portfolio. The question is: do we want objective evaluation in the core subjects, or subjective evaluation in the core subjects?

    There is no question that tests are being misused when they are given to students with no consequences — who knows if they even try; and studies show that the level of effort on no-stakes exams varies by age, gender, and socioeconomic class — and used to decide the employment status of teachers. But, to denigrate testing itself because some misguided persons misuse it is itself misguided.

    Get rid of standardized tests and schools and teachers can do whatever they please. In some cases with highly motivated teachers, the outcome will be fantastic. In more cases with typical teachers, the outcome will be tragic.

    As Rene Descartes said in the 17th century, “if a thing (such as increased learning) exists, it exists in some amount, and if it exists in some amount, it can be measured.” Saying that something, such as increased learning, cannot be measured is implicit admission that it does not, indeed, exist.

    Until those opposed to standardized testing can come up with some other measurement instrument that is valid and reliable and worthy of parents’ trust, they are not offering the public anything meaningful. Telling parents that all standardized measures are no good, and they should simply totally trust whomever their children by chance happen to end up with in their local boundary school to do the right thing, absent any external evaluation, insulting to the average citizen’s intelligence.

    Richard P Phelps


    • Standardized testing has a checkered history, as you probably know. Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” has a wealth of details. From its laudable origins as a screening device to find and **HELP** young children who were developmentally delayed, it was transmuted into a sorting device used to justify all sorts or horrific, racist, classist, and even genocidal initiatives from the UK to Germany and the USA. Of course, the use and abuse of a device in the hands of evil people doesn’t necessarily diqualify the device in the hands of decent people. After all, iron and steel can be used to wage war and murder innocent people, or they can be used to build useful buildings and highways and so on…

      As a teacher, I generally found that multiple-choice tests were pretty useless, and a very blunt instrument that merely told me that student X was pretty slow while student Y was very able. However, it didn’t take me long to find that out for myself. Whenever I got alerts from the standardized testing regime that all of my students were extremely weak at skill Z, then without a single exception I discovered that the item or items that supposedly were testing skill Z were defective. As a math teacher, I found it much more informative to see HOW a student attempted to solve a problem rather than to try to guess, based on which wrong alternative they picked, what difficulty they were having. So, yeah, I don’t think that multiple-choice tests are very useful for teachers in diagnosing students’ difficulties. It takes many, many multiple-choice test items to be able to do that with much reliability, whereas one single question where they need to show their work is sufficient.

      And another thing, Richard: based on my many years of coaching students, I conclude that standardized tests such as the SAT do a poor job of seeing whether students have actually learned the subject matter they were taught in school — at least in math, which is what I obviously concentrated on. To score well on the math SAT, you pretty much need to ignore most of the methods you were actually taught in school, and look for quick and clever shortcuts. The SAT has only a mild correlation with freshman-year college grades for white males, and very little correlation for any other groups. Student high school grades, given by “whomever their children by chance happen to end up with in their local boundary school” are much better predictors of college success, according to all of the literature I have read on the topic. Which is why more and more colleges are allowing students to use their high school transcripts rather than SAT or ACT scores.

      One thing to consider: even the testing industry realizes that not all test items are useful. Some multiple-choice items are answered correctly more often by those who generally score LOWER on the total battery of items, so those questions have to be carefully weeded out.


    • I would agree that there should be some standards for teaching and learning. But those standards should be put together by teachers and teacher educators, not by a committee of people who have never taught and who are on the payroll of big corporations. And I also think there should be higher standards for those seeking to enter the teaching profession, NOT lower standards as is being pushed by Teach For America. Teaching is a profession like many others, and requires quite a bit of training and practice to get good at. The current trend is to micromanage teachers by giving them scripted lessons to follow — lessons written by low-paid non-teachers — and to make sure that each teacher follows the same sequence of lessons on the same date. I am not making this up. It’s demoralizing to teachers and makes for extremely boring lessons for the students, as I can attest.
      Having gone to school part of my career in the US and part of the time overseas, and having spent some time looking at math textbooks from Bulgaria to Russia to China to Japan and Singapore, as well as inspected a lot of different US-published math books, I can assure you that no one approach to math pedagogy has all the answers. Most of them have some good aspects (even Saxon Math has a good point or two!), and they are all quite different. What we are doing in the US is utterly unprecedented anywhere in the world. No other country has ever turned over enormous portions of the education of its poorest citizens over to private corporations with no oversight. No other country has ever measured educational progress by requiring students in grades K-12 to spend about half of their school year preparing for truly stupid ‘standardized’ multiple-choice tests the way the US has done. No other country has decided to micromanage its teaching profession by assuming that they are all going to be temporary teachers who are not going to stick around long enough to build up a repertory of good lessons in their subject matter. No other country that I know of has decided to blame all of the social ills of the nation squarely on the public teaching staff of the nation, and then removed all supports from those teachers (requiring them to keep discipline without backing them up in any way in case of problems). No other nation has ever turned over its educational system over to a couple of large corporations the way that the US is doing (Pearson and ETS/College Board).
      Let me add this: all of these educational “reforms” now have a track record. And it’s not a good one, as I and many other bloggers have shown. That track record is one that has been studiously avoided by the mainstream media, which continues to bash teachers and promote the hair-brained educational schemes cooked up by billionaires and their various minions.


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