Thursday, June 21, 2018

Testing Blind

Imagine you are the head coach for a football team. You work with the team, prepare the team, and then game day arrives. For game day, you are not allowed to scout the other team. In fact, you are not allowed to watch the game, listen to play-by-play, read about it, talk to the players about it, or ever learn anything at all about the game except the final score.
This is the current state of testing in U.S. schools.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, every public school in the U.S. has been required to give a Big Standardized Test at the end of the year. Your state may give the PARCC, the SBA, or state-selected test like Pennsylvania's Keystone exams. The test is supposed to help pinpoint problem areas and, among other things, "inform instruction."
But for the classroom teacher, the Big Standardized Test is a black box.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the official "Ethical Standards of Test Administration" note that teachers should never "copy or otherwise reproduce any part" of the test. Teachers take a pre-test training (some Powerpoint slides followed by a quiz) that indicates that teachers should avoid even looking at the test, and if they do see the test, they must never discuss what they've seen.
Several states require students to sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging that they will never discuss the contents of the test with anyone, ever.
In 2016, a college professor leaked some PARCC questions, and the copyright infringement team at PARCC went after not just people who reprinted the questions or even general descriptions of the questions, but even those who published links to the material.
All of this means that the classroom teacher never sees anything except a student's final score. What exactly did the student do wrong? Where exactly are her weaknesses? What sorts of questions or content tend to throw her off? Teachers, who are supposed to modify their instruction to fix the problems, are never allowed to know exactly what the problems are.
Why test blindly? The explanation depends on your level of cynicism.
Maybe it really is test security. If the questions get out before the next wave takes them, the test results are compromised.
Maybe it's to avoid further embarrassment to testing manufacturers, like the infamous talking pineapple fiasco of 2012 or this article by a poet who discovered she couldn't answer test questions about her own work. Since nobody sees the questions (except students), nobody can criticize them.
Maybe it's simple cost savings. Once the test items are known, they are "used up" and creating new test items is costly. The less often the manufacturer has to create new items, the cheaper it is to produce the test.
What all these explanations have in common is that they consider the needs of the multibillion-dollar testing industry ahead of the needs of classroom teachers. This is not the best way to use a Big Standardized Test to let teachers know how the students are doing, because without seeing the test, teachers don't even know what the students are doing.
And there's one more wrinkle. Since the tests are given in the spring and the results come back even later, teachers will see the scores for students they no longer teach, or they will see the scores for students they have not yet taught and do not know. In other words, if we go back to your coaching job, after you find out the score from the last game, you now start coaching for the next game with an entirely different team.
We've been doing this testing regimen for almost two decades, and it has produced no remarkable improvements in public schools. There are many explanations for that lack of improvement, and many steps we could take to make things better. But a good first step would be to let teachers take off their blindfolds.
Originally posted at, where you can now find me writing about education issues for a slightly different audience. 

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