Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Life is not a standardized test

"We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you-- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best... the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart."

This was the letter a new elementary school principal shared with his teachers.

Standardized tests have become a means to an end. As is the case with any test, the results are only as good as the test itself.

When I was in high school, my then best friend was in National Honor Society and worked hard; she actually studied. I didn't. I had my reasons including working at least part-time jobs mostly to stay out of the house, but that's a different post for a different blog. But I made perfectly acceptable grades without a great deal of effort and so I didn't really see the point of making much effort. In our senior year, we all took the statement placement test. Within a week or so of that test, another friend of mine took the ACT and the SAT on the same Saturday. After spending quite a bit of time the night before on the roof of her house having beverages for which we were too young and smoking cigarettes. On all of my standardized tests, I usually scored in the 90th percentile for anything related to English, language, or reading. I usually scored in the 70th percentile for anything else. My ACT score was good enough to mitigate my grades and warrant a partial academic scholarship to a major university. 

My point? Taking a standardized test is an art form. There are so many factors that come into play with how a test is scored and even more so with a bubble test because right answers can be scored wrong if the student doesn't complete the bubble with some exactitude. But standardized tests are high-stakes, pressurized multiple choice tests. Every student has a 25% chance of getting an answer right and a 75% chance of getting an answer wrong. And some questions are harder to answer because the descriptors aren't very good or the question isn't very clear or the realistic answer isn't one of the choices.

But here's one of the main reasons standardized tests are ludicrous to measure what students know, what students can do at the moment, and what students might be capable of doing: life is not a standardized test. There is absolutely not one iota of authenticity in a standardized test.

Will other exams be more complex (read: more expensive) to grade? Yes, but there are ways to manage that. And one is to reduce the number of standardized tests we give kids. Another is to trust our teachers and to make sure they get the professional development they need to continue to learn how to do their jobs well.

BTW, if you Google "life is not a multiple choice test," you'll get an amazing number of hits. Why oh why oh why or oh why do so-called education reformers not listen to educators? If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd wager the assessment companies have something to do that. And so it goes.

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