The full court press for the Big Standardized Test is on, with all manner of spokespersons and PR initiatives trying to convince Americans to welcome the warm, loving embrace of standardized testing. Last week the Boston Globe brought us Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith, a pair of psychology assistant professors who have co-founded Learning Scientists, which appears to be mostly a blog that they've been running for about a month. And say what you like-- they do not appear to be slickly or heavily funded by the Usual Gang of Reformsters.
Their stated goals include lessening test anxiety and decreasing the negative views of testing. And the reliably reformy Boston Globe gave them a chance to get their word out. Additionally, the pair blogged about additional material that did not make it through the Globe's edit.
The Testing Effect
Weinstein and Smith are fond of "the testing effect" a somewhat inexact term used to refer to the notion that recalling information helps people retain it. It always makes me want a name for whatever it is that makes some people believe that the only situation in which information is recalled is a test. Hell, it could be called the teaching effect, since we can get the same thing going by having students teach a concept to the rest of the class. Or the writing effect, or the discussion effect. There are many ways to have students sock information in place by recalling it; testing is neither the only or the best way to go about it.
Things That Make the Learning Scientists Feel Bad
From their blog, we learn that the LS team feels "awkward" when reading anti-testing writing, and they link to an example from Diane Ravitch. Awkward is an odd way to feel, really. But then, I think their example of a strong defense of testing is a little awkward. They wanted to quote a HuffPost pro-testing piece from Charles Coleman that, they say, addresses problems with the opt out movement "eloquently."
"To put it plainly: white parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance." -- Charles F. Coleman Jr.
Ah. So opt outers are white, rich, whiny racists. That is certainly eloquent and well-reasoned support of testing. And let's throw in the counter-reality notion that testing helps poor schools, though after over a decade of test-driven accountability, you'd think supporters could rattle off a list of schools that A) nobody knew were underfunded and underresourced until testing and B) received an boost through extra money and resources after testing. Could it be that no such list actually exists?
Tests Cause Anxiety
The LS duo wants to decrease test anxiety by hammering students with testing all the time, so that it's no longer a big deal. I believe that's true, but not a good idea. Also, parents and teachers should stop saying bad things about the BS Tests, but just keep piling on the happy talk so that students can stop worrying and learn to love the test. All of this, of course, pre-supposes that the BS Tests are actually worthwhile and wonderful and that all the misgivings being expressed by professional educators and the parents of the children is-- what? An evil plot? Widespread confusion? The duo seem deeply committed to not admitting that test critics have any point at all. Fools, the lot of them.
Teaching to the Test
The idea that teaching to a test isn’t really teaching implies an almost astounding assumption that standardized tests are filled with meaningless, ill-thought-out questions on irrelevant or arbitrary information. This may be based on the myth that “teachers in the trenches” are being told what to teach by some “experts” who’ve probably never set foot in a “real” classroom.
Actually, it's neither "astounding" nor an "assumption," but, at least in the case of this "defiant" teacher (LS likes to use argument by adjective), my judgment of the test is based on looking at the actual test and using my professional judgment. It's a crappy test, with poorly-constructed questions that, as is generally the case with a standardized test, mostly test the student's ability to figure out what the test manufacturer wants the student to choose for an answer (and of course the fact that students are selecting answers rather than responding to open ended prompts further limits the usefulness of the BS Test).
But LS assert that tests are actually put together by testing experts and well-seasoned real teachers (and you can see the proof in a video put up by a testing manufacturer about how awesome that test manufacturer is, so totally legit). LS note that "defiant teachers" either "fail to realize" this or "choose to ignore" it. In other words, teachers are either dumb or mindlessly opposed to the truth.
Standardized Tests Are Biased
The team notes that bias is an issue with standardized tests, but it's "highly unlikely" that classroom teachers could do any better, so there. Their question-- if we can't trust a big board of experts to come up with an unbiased test, how can we believe that an individual wouldn't do even worse, and how would we hold them accountable?
That's a fair question, but it assumes some purposes for testing that are not in evidence. My classroom tests are there to see how my students have progressed with and grasped the material. I design those materials with my students in mind. I don't, as BS Tests often do, assume that "everybody knows about" the topic of the material, because I know the everybody's in my classroom, so I can make choices accordingly. I can also select prompts and test material that hook directly into their culture and background.
In short, BS Testing bias enters largely because the test is designed to fit an imaginary Generic Student who actually represents the biases of the test manufacturers, while my assessments are designed to fit the very specific group of students in my room. BS Tests are one-size-fits-all. Mine are tailored to fit.
Reformsters may then say, "But if yours are tailored to fit, how can we use them to compare your students to students across the nation." To which I say, "So what?" You'll need to convince me that there is an actual need to closely compare all students in the nation.
Tests Don't Provide Prompt Feedback
The duo actually agree that test "have a lot of room for improvement." They even acknowledge that the feedback from the test is not only late, but generally vague and useless. But hey-- tests are going to be totes better when they are all online, an assertion that makes the astonishing assumption that there is no difference between a paper test and a computer test except how the students record their answers.
The wrap up is a final barrage of Wrong Things.
Standardized tests were created to track students’ progress and evaluate schools and teachers.
Were they? Really? Is it even possible to create a single test that can actually be used for all those purposes? Because just about everyone on the planet not financially invested in the industry has pointed out that using test results to evaluate teachers via VAM-like methods is baloney. And tests need to be manufactured for a particular purpose-- not three or four entirely different ones. So I call shenanigans-- the tests were not created to both measure and track all three of those things.
Griping abounds about how these tests are measuring the wrong thing and in the wrong way; but what’s conspicuously absent is any suggestion for how to better measure the effect of education — i.e., learning — on a large scale.
A popular reformster fallacy. If you walk into my hospital room and say, "Well, your blood pressure is terrible, so we are going to chop off your feet," and then I say, "No, I don't want you to chop off my feet. I don't believe it will help, and I like my feet," your appropriate response is not, "Well, then, you'd better tell me what else you want me to chop off instead.
In other words, what is "conspicuously absent" is evidence that there is a need for or value in measuring the effects of education on a large scale. Why do we need to do that? If you want to upend the education system for that purpose, the burden is on you to prove that the purpose is valid and useful.
In the absence of direct measures of learning, we resort to measures of performance.
Since we can't actually measure what we want to measure, we'll measure something else as a proxy and talk about it as if it's the same thing. That is one of the major problems with BS Testing in a nutshell.
And the great thing is: measuring this learning actually causes it to grow.
And weighing the pig makes it heavier. This is simply not true, "testing effect" notwithstanding.
Via the blog, we know that they wanted to link to this post at Learning Spy which has some interesting things to say about the difference between learning and performance, including this:
And students are skilled at mimicking what they think teachers want to see and hear. This mimicry might result in learning but often doesn’t.
That's a pretty good explanation of why BS Tests are of so little use-- they are about learning to mimic the behavior required by test manufacturers. But the critical difference between that mimicry on a test and in my classroom is that in my classroom, I can watch for when students are simply mimicking and adjust my instruction and assessment accordingly. A BS Tests cannot make any such adjustments, and cannot tell the difference between mimicry and learning at all.
The duo notes that their post is "controversial," and it is in the sense that it's more pro-test baloney, but I suspect that much of their pushback is also a reaction to their barely-disguised disdain for classroom teachers who don't agree with them. They might also consider widening their tool selection ("when your only tool is a hammer, etc...") to include a broader range of approaches beyond the "test effect." It's a nice trick, and it has its uses, but it's a lousy justification for high stakes BS Testing.