Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Other Testing Problem

It's testing season, and that means we are hearing the annual recitation of stories of despair and misery among the students, as small children are pressed to and past their breaking point. These stories are heartbreaking and rage-inducing all at the same time, but they aren't the only story. They probably aren't even the most common story, and they may not even be the most important story.

If you give a human, particularly a young human, a task to complete, one that seems difficult and yet pointless, unpleasant and yet with no real stakes for that human, what is the most common response?

A) To try their hardest because even if it seems pointless, it might not be, and I always do my best
B) This is a stupid waste of my time, so I will zip through it quickly so it wastes the least possible time
C) I will avoid frustration by not caring and not trying
D) Look, a butterfly!

Testocrats are so certain that their work is so hugely important that they can't imagine how anyone could fail to see the Importance of the Test. In a weird way, the student meltdown stories actually confirm their judgment.

But all the data, all the analysis of the data, all the conclusions based on the data-- all of that starts with the assumption that the students who took the Big Standardized Test actually tried.

Teachers have only a couple of choices here. We can try to cash in the trust we've built in our classrooms. Every fall I promise my students that I will never purposely waste their time; when BS Test time rolls around, I could just lie to them. But that seems, you know, wrong. Morally and ethically wrong.

Teachers can make the test relevant to students by making it central to the class, the culmination of learning for the year. This is what test prep really means-- not just teaching test-taking tips and material strictly because it will be on the test, but making the test the whole point of education. This seems like, you know, educational malpractice and a huge devaluation of education itself.

Teachers can also try things like flat out bribery. That seems like an admission of defeat and a betrayal of the rest of the students' education.

Or teachers can watch as students complete twenty multiple choice questions in three minutes (of course, we're not allowed to offer help or say "Get serious, Pat!") and write three word essay answers and remember that experience months later when someone is trying to claim that the BS Test tells us something useful about what Pat does or doesn't know.

Pat will whip through the test, take a nap, and leave school for the day happy and unbothered. Pat's blowing off of the test may even make a good story for Pat to tell that makes Pat look pretty cool in the circle of friends. Pat's story is neither touching nor heartbreaking. But I sure wish the people who think that Pat's test tells anybody anything could be there to watch Pat take the test. Because even if the BS Tests weren't a lousy test, Pat's results still wouldn't tell us a damn thing.


  1. This "other" testing problem is a much bigger deal than one would think, especially at the middle level, grades 7 and 8. It has also been compounded by the opt out movement here in NY. When most of your friends are reading in the auditorium instead of testing, what is your incentive to do your best?

    I just spent three days watching students finish a 90 minute math tests in 20 to 30 minutes and then spend the remaining hour+ spinning [plastic protractors on their pencil or making paper airplanes out of their formula reference sheet.

    This "other" testing problem has made the resulting scores, less than meaningless.

  2. I like how this analysis points out a few important ways in which excessive testing damages education. In my college students, I see the damage of excessive standardized and multiple-choice testing in their attitude toward knowledge. My students just want to know the "right" answer so that they can put it on the test. But I give essay exams in philosophy, so there are many ways to write a good response. Some of them get hostile when I tell them that they will have to figure out what constitutes a good answer.

    Excessive standardized testing seems to teach students that the world and our knowledge of it can be sorted into neat little categories where everything fits just as it should. The world and our knowledge of it just aren't like that.

    1. Its no surprise that a narrowed curriculum with a size-fits-all(few?) approach to math and ELA in which standardized test scores becomeas the meaning of (educational) life has produced a generation of narrow, cookie-cutter thinkers focused on the one right answer.
      This is the TRUE LEGACY of NCLB/RTTT/CCSS.

  3. "But all the data, all the analysis if the data, all the conclusions based on the data-- all of that starts with the assumption that the students who took the Big Standardized Test actually tried."

    Yes! A thousand times yes! This is the HUGE elephant in the room that the promoters and supporters of the BS tests don't even understand is happening. Or if they do, they are happy about it, because it helps give them the scores that support their "failing schools" narrative.

  4. Absolutely, positively on target - the experience I see with EVERY standardized test from MAP to PARCC and all interim common assessments at our HS!!!!

  5. Something I wrote a few years back:
    Thoughts on Testing

    The state test scores arrive, and most correlate to the level of work I've seen from the students who took the test. Three very low scores seem out of whack. I check the state exit exam results and find that all three students have easily passed, so I decide to investigate. After discussing the discrepancies with my administrator, we decide to call the students in one by one to find out why they scored at the lowest level on a test that politicians want to use to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

    The first student arrives in a foul mood, admits to "being bored" and deliberately tanking the test, bubbling whatever, then taking a nap. Since her score will have no impact whatsoever on her ability to pass her classes and graduate, she feels no need to make any effort during the annoying state testing season.

    The second student had been out sick before the test, but dragged herself in to take it, with negative results. Schools can be punished if not enough students show up for testing, but can also be punished if students that come to school ill score poorly, a lose/lose situation.

    The third student breaks down in tears, saying her mom had thrown her out of the house right before the test and refused to speak to her. She had been an emotional wreck, and unable to focus on the test. Nor had her life improved, as she was still staying with relatives.

    Now if I were being judged on test scores, theirs would have lowered my ranking considerably, no matter how hard I worked or what curriculum I used. Did I have even an ounce of control here? Obviously not, but neither the press nor the educrats are looking at students as individuals with problems to match, so the cold hard data rules.

    I'm all about the story. If a teacher can raise scores, despite the hidden hells that overwhelm some students' lives, then good for that teacher. If not, we need to take the time and make the effort to truly understand why that student or those students did not or could not succeed on that test before we plaster labels on their teachers.

    Hold me responsible for that which is within my control, but do not vilify or demonize me for what is not. Yes, teachers need to be evaluated, but there has to be a better way, one that does not treat students like widgets, but which honors their individuality.

  6. There is no sense in this. "My dad beat up my mom last night. He's in jail" ..."I can't do this, you know that".... "I tried my best, but I know I failed..." on and on and on. AND My student scores do matter where my APPR is concerned. If not the state exam, then the district exams that follow! Yet more testing, which tells me NOTHING, absolutely nothing to better these children's education. The sins of this government will haunt us for a long time to come.

  7. The other sixth graders are jealous of my son and one other kid who opted out. My kid wrote a story, read a book, and is now drawing detailed sketches of his favorite cars. He comes home happy and energetic. Perhaps this will inform kids at a young age of their "rights" to a happy learning environment free of long points less tests.