As testing has risen once again to the surface of the ed policy soup, I have found myself in versions of the same conversation, because people who like the idea of standardized testing really like the idea of standardized testing, and because I said the number of necessary standardized tests is zero.
data from tests are the life blood of education and he took exception with my exception. Someone in the comments called me a "union shill." And a reporter asked me what the alternative to standardized testing would be.
It's a fair question. Is there such a thing as a useful standardized test?
But First a Few Words about Opposition
To have this conversation, we have to get one thing out of the way first. If you believe (and I think some reformsters sincerely believe it) that the only reason that teachers oppose the current high stakes test-and-punish status quo is because their self-serving union tells them to, you are blinding yourself to some real issues. First, there is a real gulf between national union leadership and rank and file teachers precisely because union opposition to reformster policies has been tepid at best. For the most part, NEA and AFT leadership is not whipping up opposition to ed reform policies-- they are trying to tamp it down.
The teacher opposition to testing comes first and foremost from teachers who are watching testing become a toxic and destructive element in our classrooms. Testing doesn't just drive the bus, but it drives it straight toward a cliff. It gets in our way, interfering with our ability to deliver real education. It's detrimental to our students. It is educational malpractice. And on top of all that, it is used in many places to deliver a professional verdict on our schools and ourselves with an accuracy no greater than a roll of the dice.
The other opposition to testing comes from the other people who see how it plays out on the ground-- the parents. The Opt Out movement was not created by teachers, is not led by teachers and, in some places, is actually potentially damaging to teachers under the current bizarro test-driven accountability system.
So if you imagine that test opposition is some sort of political ploy engineered top-down by the unions, you are kidding yourself.
None of That Answers the Question, so Let's Get Back To It
If I am such a dedicated opponent of standardized testing, what do I propose as an acceptable substitute.
Before we go any further, we'd better clarify our rather fuzzy terms.
Come to think of it, we'd better clarify "test" as well. For many folks, it's only a "test" if the student is answering questions. A five page paper assignment, for instance, is usually not called a test. In fact, the more open-ended the assessment, the less likely folks are to call it a "test." In schools, a test (students must prove they know something) is different from tests anywhere else (e.g. if we test the water, it is not up to the water to prove anything, but it is up to the tester to find a way to measure the nature of the water). Requiring students to prove themselves is the very first step in developing a bad assessment.
"Standardized" when applied to a test can mean any or all (well, most) of the following: mass-produced, mass-administered, simultaneously mass-administered, objective, created by a third party, scored by a third party, reported to a third party, formative, summative, norm-referenced or criterion referenced.
This broad palate of definitions means that conversations about standardized testing often run at cross-purposes. When Binis talks about the new performance assessment task piloting in NH, she thinks she's making a case for standardization, and I'm think that performance based assessment is pretty much the opposite of standardized testing. There's a lot of this happening in the testing debates-- people arguing unproductively because they have very different things in mind.
Acceptable Substitute for What Purpose
The confusion is further exacerbated by a myriad of stated and unstated purposes for standardized testing. This confusion about purpose has emerged as a huge issue in the ed debates because far too many of the amateurs designing testing policy don't understand this at all. At. All.
It's not just that reformsters argue that you can make the pig gain weight by measuring it. It's that they also assert that the scales used for weighing the pig can also be used to measure the voltage of your house's electrical system and the rate of water flow in the Upper Mississippi.
If we want to find an acceptable test, we have to first declare what the test is going to be used for.
Ranking schools, students and teachers
This is where purpose becomes important, because I can't think of a good test for achieving these goals because I don't think these goals are worth achieving. As a teacher, I don't need to know how my student compares to students in Idaho. I don't need to know that as a parent, either.
Comparing teachers to other teachers, schools to other schools, students to other students-- it's a fool's game. First of all, I can only make the comparison based on a narrowly defined criteria. Otherwise I'm reduced to deciding if my insensitive smart flabby artist student ranks lower or higher than my sensitive tall winning cross country racer student. The comparison only has meaning if it is based on narrow criteria (which student answered the most math problems correctly on Tuesday)-- but what good is a narrowly defined comparison.
If I find that my smart, funny wife is not as smart and funny as some other woman, should I be unhappy in my marriage? If this delicious steak is not as delicious as the steak I had last night, should I spit it out? If all the teachers in my school are great, should it be closed down because some other school has greater ones?
The signature feature of a ranking system is that it locates losers. But what decent teacher would stand in front of a class of thirty on the first day of school and say, "Five of you will turn out to be losers." Testy science wonks like Binis would scold me for saying "loser" and argue for something less loaded and more clinical, but I'm working with students and all the sugar coating in the world will not hide the medicine in this model.
Ranking and rating means that even if everyone is excellent, the least excellent must be marked Below Basic or Underperforming or Just Not Good Enough. A system based on ranking and rating is a system that assumes that in every endeavor, there are people who just aren't good enough. I reject that view of the world, and so I reject any testing system designed to re-inforce that view. If everybody in my classroom does a great job, everybody in my classroom gets an A.
Providing feedback for parents
Here we have a standardization problem because not all parents want the same feedback. Is she getting an A? Is she passing? Is she developing a better grasp of abstract language particularly as used in classic literature? Is she okay? Does she seem happy? These are all types of feedback I've been asked for by some parents. What one measuring tool would satisfy all those questions?
Standardized testing is repeatedly sold with the myth of the clueless parents, the parents who have no idea how their students are doing. But the solution to this problem is transparency, the levels of which can be controlled by the parents.
For example, the electronic gradebook. Our parents can look up their students any time and see exactly what I see when I pull up the gradebook. Some of my parents look every day. Some look never. Some look and then call or email me to ask, "So what exactly was this one assignment."
When we control the available information, we do parents a disservice. Only revealing the grade at report card time is a disservice. But anyone who has taught at a school with big detailed portfolio gradeless systems can tell the story of the parent who looked at all that data and said, "Look, can you just tell me what grade she's getting?"
Parents deserve just as much feedback as they want. Standardized testing has nothing to do with providing that.
Feedback for teachers
Any decent teacher generates this kind of data daily. Any lousy teacher will have no use for standardized test data even if it arrives on gold-clothed ponies.
You are dodging the question
Okay, yeah. I've laid out my usual assortment of objections to standardized testing, but I still haven't said what would be an acceptable substitute. If you're still here, I'll try to address that now.
What qualities would an acceptable-to-me standardized test have?
If I ever were to find a standardized test that I could live with (or even date regularly), this is what it would look like.
Criterion-based (and so, objective)
If I'm going to measure my students against a standard, not against each other. I can use the test to answer the question, "Do my students know how to find verbs" or "Can my students identify dependent clauses?" If every student in my class can't potentially get a top score, I'm not interested. And if it's not objectively scoreable, it's no help. That means that no standardized test is going to be used for any higher order critical thinking type skills.
(This is part of the whole point of Depth of Knowledge testing love--it creates the illusion that higher order stuff can be scored objectively. But no, it can't).
It is possible to come up with standardized questions. I once had a textbook with great literature questions-- but I still had to evaluate the answers myself.
In fact, I can only see using a standardized test for checking the lowest levels of simple operations-- simple recall, basic application.
As Close to Authentic as Possible
I want a task that actually assesses what it claims to assess. Multiple choice questions don't assess writing skills. Click-and-drag questions don't assess critical thinking.
This ought to go without saying, but if I don't get to see the questions, the answers, and the exact results from my students, then, no, thank you. I can do better myself.
I rarely re-use my own test-like assessments; instead, I make new ones each year to fit the class and the instruction. Particularly when I'm working summative assessments, I'll create something that focuses on the issues that we're struggling with. For instance, if we're solid on spotting infinitive phrases but have trouble picking out gerunds used as direct objects, I can design a test that will help both me and my students. I can adjust assessment to build confidence or prompt a come-to-Jesus moment.
Expertise and Convenience
There are lots of things I don't know. Materials prepared by people who are experts in particular areas are a necessary aid, and those sometimes include assessments. I'm happy to have an expert in a particular field in my classroom.
And at some points, I can use the convenience of having something pre-built to save me some time.
So, the acceptable alternative...?
Man, this ended up far longer than I meant it to, but I wanted to seriously examine my thoughts about this. Do I really think that there are no necessary standardized tests?
Well, Binis is correct when she argues that we all use standardization because we don't completely individualize everything from assessment through evaluation-- but that's a hugely broad definition of "standardized."(She disagrees with my reading of her "ever do this..." list.)
By that standard (har) everything used with two or more students is a standardized test-- and maybe it's useful to think of standardization as a sliding scale. The more we broaden the reach of the assessment, the more students we try to make it each, and the more we try to make the grading of the test be quick and uniform, the less useful the assessment becomes. A test that you can give to every student in America and which can be scored in just a week will by necessity be inauthentic and measure little. So for best classroom assessment, we stay as close to the individualized specifics end as we possibly can. The more that an assessment is developed in response to specific instruction by a specific teacher of specific students, the more useful that assessment will be in performing the most useful function of any test-- telling students and teachers where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
Yes, that information is not what the policymakers would really like to have. But the information they would like to have is completely useless to me in the classroom (and so far, they've found no reliable method for either collecting or using such information anyway). I'm not convinced that information can be collected by standardized tests anyway, but Good lord in Heaven am I still typing???
The number of necessary standardized tests, the number of tests I really need in my classroom? I still say zero. Mind you, I'm not saying that all standardized tests are an evil plague, and stripped of baseless high-stakes consequences, their plaguiness is greatly reduced. There are standardized tools that are tolerable, and a few that might rise to the level of useful. But necessary? Needed?