Thursday, May 8, 2014

Testing Does Not Improve Instruction

In an ongoing cultural debate, it is always interesting to watch the shift and change of talking points. The battle for public education is no different.

Many talking points are retired voluntarily. Common Core supporters have shifted from "all CCSS opposition comes from the tin hat tea party wing" to "it's those damn teachers and their unholy alliance with the tea party." Just in the last week, charter fans retired that old classic "Charter schools will be more efficient and save the taxpayer money" and replaced it with "Give charters all the monies that you spend on public schools."

Some talking points should be taken out of rotation. Like "Call Me Maybe," they keep rattling on long after everyone is over them. Maybe the CCSS supporters out on the fringes are late getting the memos. Maybe they just don't realize that the talking points have lost their power to move. Whatever the reason, this talking point needs to be retired Right Now.

High stakes test help improve instruction.

Defenders of high stakes standardized tests repeatedly assert that these will be great because they will aid instruction. Teachers will look at test results and incorporate that feedback into our classroom plans and strategies. Let's take a look at one specific school-- my own-- for an example of all the ways that this is wrong.

We will be taking our state's version of The Test next week (we could have done it a week or two earlier, but this is the state's testing window). So test results-- if they were instantaneous--would help me modify my instruction over the last twenty days of school.

Of course, they won't be instantaneous. We'll get them some time next fall, and by then I will be looking at a completely different group of students in my classroom. Heck, in the case of many members of my department, they won't even be teaching the same grade level or class. So entirely different students and entirely different curriculum.

Can I break down the test results to collect more pearls of pedagogical wisdom? Of course not-- The Test is under super-duper high security, and nobody's allowed to see, touch, taste or smell it. So I will just have to take some test-providers word for it when they tell me that my students aren't very good at meeting Standard A.34-Q7B.01.

Imagine if I did my own student assessment like that-- handed tests back to them with just a grade but no explanation of which questions they missed or why. What could I expect them to learn from that?

More importantly-- do I need to have these test results to analyze? Am I such a disaster as a teacher, such a dud as a sentient being, that I am unable to make educational judgments about the people right in front of me? Is my daily exposure to them, my regular assessment of them, my continued work with them-- is all that so completely insufficient that only by shining the bright light of a standardized test can I hope to see into the murky gloom of my class?

I do understand that helping me is not actually the goal, that we are trying to move toward the dream of a day when the student takes a test on the computer and the computer "individualizes" the student's program. This is a dumb idea for a variety of reasons, but the most notable feature of the idea is that it's not what we're doing. It's a waste of time to sit and play with the remote control for a tv that you expect to own some day in the future, but don't have yet.

And it should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway, that if the test is a terrible rotten lousy no good very bad test, then none of the rest of this discussion matters one whit.

Standardized testing does not help teaching. It does not improve instruction. Supporters of the Reformy Status Quo should stop saying it does.

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