Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Test (In)Security

One of the features of High Stakes Testing is a level of security usually associated with large bales of money, important state secrets, and the recipe for Bush's Baked Beans. On facebook, in the category of "Ethical Dilemmas Nobody Ever Thought She'd Face," teachers are arguing about whether it's okay to photograph or copy any of the PARCC or SBA exams. I have a thought-- but first, let me tell you a story.

Forty years ago I took a biology course called BSCS. That stands for "Biological Sciences Curriculum Studies," though we generally interpreted it as "BS College Style."  To this day, the tests from that course are the toughest tests I've ever taken. I still remember sections of those tests (a village where they make pottery compared to a single-celled organism, an experiment on a kangaroo rat) because they were so challenging. And these very tough, very challenging tests came with zero security.

In fact, we took the tests as take-home tests. People called their college siblings, friends who were taking college biology. We had test parties, and everybody came and hammered out the answers. And then, on the due date, we handed the test in. And then we took the same test (with questions rearranged) in class.

The tests were so perfectly built around the ability to think and reason scientifically, to interpret data, to build useful analogies, that no security was needed (and no, everybody did not get an A every time-- not even close). So here's what I think about high stakes test security:

If your test needs super-secret high-and-tight lock down security, it is a crappy test.

This applies to classroom teachers as well. The better I get at assessment, the less I need test security. My students pass on year after year, like tales of the Loch Ness Bigfoot, tales of various assignments that may crop up in my class (though the assignment list does vary from year to year). It doesn't matter. If I've done my job well, there is no place on God's green earth to go look up The Answer.

The PARCC and SBA make a lot of noise about how tight security must be in order to protect the validity of the test. Baloney. Aren't these tests supposed to be impervious to test prep, completely inaccessible to the world of memorization and rote? What these folks want to protect is their delicate ears and eyes, protect them from the onslaught of outrage and ridicule that would follow if the general public and professional educators got a good look at the test.

If your model of a test is a surprise, a moment in your course when you jump out from behind a bush a try to play "gotcha" with your students, you are doing it wrong. Tests should be an opportunity to apply knowledge, to ramp the whole process up one final step that really seats the knowledge or skill in the students' brains.

But the underlying assumption in the high-stakes test-driven movement is that there are skadzillions of bad teachers and the students they have failed to teach out there, skadZILLIONS of them, and somehow they are sneaking by and we are going to have to outsmart them so that we can catch them in their consummate suckiness. The high-stakes test-driven movement is not about education-- it's about finding proof, somehow, that public schools are failing. It is nothing but a game of "gotcha."

The super-duper secret security that surrounds the assessments is further proof of their suckiness. And, for what it's worth, the ethical dilemma of copying one of the exams is about the same as the ethical dilemma of photographing a policeman who is beating a suspect.


  1. Again, well said and so true!

  2. Parents, teachers, Board of Education members and NYS legislators are asking to see the grade 3-8 NYS common core aligned tests:


  3. Absolutely! I have said this for years! Just not as articulately as you always do.