Friday, February 21, 2014

Standardized Testing Sucks

I am not a testing scientist. There are bloggers and writers and people who frequent the comments section of Diane Ravitch's blog who can dissect the science and the stats and the proper creation and forming and parsing of testing and testlettes and testicles (okay, maybe not those). I'm not one of those people; Mercedes Schneider has undoubtedly forgotten more about testing that I ever learned in the first place.

But I do believe standardized testing, testing that operates on a level beyond the local, sucks. And I don't just mean that it is unkind or obnoxious or oppressive. I mean that it just doesn't work. It does not do what it sets out to do.

Years and years ago, Pennsylvania launched state-wide testing. Not the PSSAs, but the PSAs. One of the first to be rolled out was the PSA writing test. Students in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grade across the state responded to a nifty prompt. These were all gathered up, and the state assembled a Holiday Inn's worth of Real Live Teachers to score papers for a weekend.

I was there for two of those years. It was kind of awesome in a way that only an English teacher could find awesome. We received some training on the kind of holistic rubric scoring that we all now know and-- well, know. And then we sat at tables and powered through. In exchange, we received a free weekend at a nice hotel with food and a chance to meet other teachers from across the state (one year we also received a "I scored 800 times in Harrisburg" pin-- again, English teacher geek awesomeness).

But the PSAs ran up against a problem from the get-go-- students recognized that there was no reason to take them seriously.

And so the state started looking for ways to FORCE students to take the state tests seriously. Make schools count them as grades. Give cool diploma stickers to the best scorers. Make the tests graduation requirements. And hire a company, not actual teachers, to score the test. Students of history will note that these ideas never quite went away.

But when you have to force somebody to take you seriously, when you have to threaten or bully people into treating something as if it's important, you've already acknowledged that there is no good reason for them to take you seriously. And that is why standardized testing sucks.

I am not opposed to data collection and assessment. I do it all the time in my room, both formally and informally. I don't test very much; mostly my students do what we're now calling performance tasks-- anything from writing papers to designing websites to standing up and presenting to the class. My students generally do these without much fuss, and I think that's because they can see the point. Sometimes they can see me design the task in front of them ("Our discussion of the novel headed off in this direction, so let's make the paper assignment about this idea...").

My students know an inauthentic bogus bullshit assessment task when they see one. They know the SAT is bogus, but they have been led to believe it holds their future ransom, so they do it anyway (and we know that after all these years of development, it still doesn't predict college success better than high school grades-- do PARCC and SBA really think they'll do better). And the state has tried to place the High Stakes Test between students and graduation so that students will take the test seriously, but they still recognize it as inauthentic malarkey. If you hold someone hostage and agree to release her if she kisses you, you are a fool to turn around and claim that the kiss is proof that she loves you.

Standardized testing is completely inauthentic assessment, and students know that. The young ones may blame themselves, but students of all ages see that there is no connection between the testing and their education, their lives, anything or anyone at all in their real existence. Standardized test are like driving down a highway on vacation where every five miles you have to stop, get out of the car, and make three basketball shot attempts from the free throw line-- annoying, intrusive, and completely unrelated to the journey you're on. If someone stands at the free throw line and threatens you with a beating if you miss, it still won't make you conclude that the requirement is not stupid and pointless.

And so the foundation of all this data generation, all this evaluation, all this summative formative bibbitive bobbitive boobosity, is a student performing an action under duress that she sees as stupid and pointless and disconnected from anything real in life. What are the odds that this task under these conditions truly measures anything at all? And on that tissue-thin foundation, we build a whole structure of planning students's futures, sculpting instruction, evaluating teachers. There is nothing anywhere that comes close in sheer hubritic stupidity.

To make matters worse, the structure that we've built is built of bad tests. Even if students somehow decided these tests were Really Important, the data collected would still be bad because the tests themselves are poorly-designed untested unvalidated abominations.

It is great to see the emergence of Testing Resistance & Reform Spring, a new coalition of some of the strongest voices in education on the testing issue. They've come out in favor of three simple steps:

            1) Stop high-stakes use of standardized tests;
            2)  Reduce the number of standardized exams, saving time and money for real learning; and
            3)  Replace multiple-choice tests with performance-based assessments and evidence of learning from students’ ongoing classwork (“multiple measures”).

These three goals are an essential part of taking back our public schools and dislodging the most toxic of the reformy stuff that has infected education over the past decade. It's a movement that deserves widespread support. Let's get back to assessment that really means something.

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