In about a month I will become an ex-teacher, retiring after 33 years in the classroom. Before I go, I need to grind a very important axe. No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop posting essays here on Patch—you’re not getting off that easily, my friend. It’s just that my comments on this topic seem more authoritative now since they come from someone who is currently teaching. Once I’m retired, everything I suggest will be tainted by the, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, now that you don’t have to do the idiotic things you’re advocating,” counter-attack, which I don’t want to taint what follows. So, before anyone can blow off these criticisms, this analysis is coming from someone on the front lines of the standardized testing lunacy in vogue right now. And given that the tests are only going to be MORE “vital” once the legislation mandating their being one of the criteria used to evaluate teachers takes effect (already in place in other states, like New York), we anti-testing guerillas need every advantage we can muster.
Okay, let’s get right to it: I hate standardized tests with a passion and would be happy if every SAT, ACT, GRE, and any other three-letter set you might throw at me would vanish tomorrow. I can grudgingly admit that they serve a limited purpose, but their power and influence have grown at alarming and unmerited rates over the years. Standardized tests have altered the schools in many negative ways, and right now there seems to be no end to their nefarious impact.
Standardized tests have been around a long time, but they really kicked into gear when the “accountability” rage of the 1980s emerged. Schools had pretty much gotten a free ride up until that time. Teachers taught or didn’t, kids learned or didn’t, and the U.S. economy just kept chugging along. Then competition from abroad—initially Japan, then Western Europe, and currently China—started to puncture our complacency. Maybe we wouldn’t be able to count on each generation’s lifestyle being a step up from its parents. The competitive nature of capitalism seemed beautiful when we were always winning; but as soon as Toyota started kicking GM’s butt, we began looking around for a scapegoat—somebody besides GM, of course, since we wouldn’t want to blame the barons of industry. No way! As Enron, Tyco, AIG, BP and all the rest have recently shown us; business leaders always have our best interests at heart.
Anyway, as Sony and Japan looked like they were going to put RCA and the US out of business, the fingers started pointing wildly, and ultimately many of them found our schools as the source of the problem. “Of course,” they reasoned (the people, not just their fingers—sorry about that lack of closure on my synecdoche), “if our schools did a better job of preparing our youth, we’d never be in this mess! Look at Japan—those guys have school for about sixty days more each year than we do. And on world-wide math tests, our US students finish near the bottom all the time. Hey, all our problems could be solved if those stupid schools did a better job with our kids. What we need to do is to hold those overpaid, under worked, tenure-abusing slobs accountable.”
So, how do you hold a Byzantine system of thousands of different schools systems, each individually controlled by elected officials, with millions of employees, accountable? Ta-da—enter the standardized tests. Actually, they were already there: being used to assist with placement in tracked classes, predicting success in college, and giving a rough measure of what the kids had learned… “Wait a minute! That last one! That’s what we need—a way to tell how much our kids have learned, to compare different school districts, and to cast judgments and aspersions on those who don’t get as high a score as we determine they should. Yeah, that’s what we’re talkin’ about!” And the power of the standardized test suddenly multiplied a thousand-fold.
The state legislatures all raced each other to see who could come up with the best way of using standardized tests as a hammer to beat the schools into shape. In Illinois, we had the Illinois Goal Assessment Program (IGAP), followed by the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), which is now coupled with the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) to determine a school’s worth. Every year, the state issues a “Report Card” that shows how each school is doing in a variety of areas. (How ironic is that—the schools which have always been on the giving end of report cards which have gotten millions of kids into trouble over the years now get shafted by something with the same name. There is a perverse kind of justice here, I suppose.) From racial breakdown to average teacher salary, the Illinois Report Card gives Illinoisans all kinds of information about their schools. (See http://iirc.niu.edu/ to look up your child’s school’s report card.) The things that attract the most attention, though, are the standardized test scores. Newspapers will show school rankings each year using them, the federal government will issue warnings for schools that aren’t making “adequate yearly progress” because of them, and the public’s perception of the overall quality of a school district is now largely based on them.
You can imagine the effect this test-mania has had on our schools. Even relatively sane people get crazy around test time now. Jobs are lost and salaries determined because of the test scores, so administrators take them pretty seriously. And as of September 1, 2012, according to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) website (http://www.isbe.net/peac/html/faqs.htm), “Any school receiving federal School Improvement Grants must begin evaluating teachers using a new system that incorporates student growth measures.” Translated: Teachers will be rated based on how their students do on standardized tests. Will that mean some teachers might lose their jobs because of standardized test scores? I’m pretty sure most teachers won’t want to take that chance.
“Test Preparation” has become an integral part of the curriculum with teachers going over skills we know the tests will cover, drilling on test-taking strategies to give our students an advantage over kids more ignorant on the tests’ formats, and administering practice test after practice test. Obviously, all this test-taking stuff takes time away from other things we could be doing in our classrooms, but the number-one negative outcome of standardized tests is that they are taking control away from the classroom teacher and giving it to the testing authorities.
I have no idea how these tests get put together, but I cannot conceive of making a single test that would accurately assess just how much a high school junior (when the PSAE is given in Illinois) has learned in English class over his eleven years in public schools. As I’ve discussed before (See “My Manifesto”), just what a student should be able to do upon high school graduation is the most important discussion we don’t have often enough in our schools. That same kind of discussion should be guiding what’s on standardized tests, but who’s in control of that determination? I’ve never participated in any discussions, symposiums, dialogues, or focus groups to assist in determining what kinds of things would make sense to assess on a standardized test despite having received “superlative” evaluations for over a quarter of a century, nor am I aware of any of my colleagues who have done so. So the first questions we need to answer before swallowing any of the standardized test nonsense is who puts these things together and how do they do it?
Then, exactly what are they testing? You get these broad categories like “Physical Sciences” and “Language Arts,” but what the hell do those mean? What does it take to score well enough to be considered a “Language Artist”? How do you balance the myriad of skills that go into an English class and weight them appropriately? For example, it’s easy to test a kid’s knowledge of punctuation with a multiple-choice test, but what percentage of test items should concern comma placement as opposed to sentence fragments or understanding a poet’s use of metaphor? Does recognizing that two independent clauses connected with the adverb “however” should be punctuated with a semi-colon instead of a comma equal the ability to challenge a conclusion based on Ad Hominem attacks? What standard deviation do we use to compare the ability to not split infinitives (Get it? In listing the split infinitive thing, I split the infinitive “to split” by inserting the “not.” Ah, grammar humor—can we ever get enough?) and organizing four sub-sections on an essay test?
I could go on endlessly with this type of contrast, but you get the idea: Each discipline is composed of so many disparate elements that creating a test which assesses all of those skills in the “right” proportions would be a daunting task for the greatest educators of all time, and I’ve already mentioned that I was never consulted which would suggest that at least one of our greatest educators got overlooked.
Okay, I’m sorry about that. Let’s get back to attacking these stupid tests. My specialty clearly challenges all test makers more than many others. As we’ve discussed already, the outcomes in English should be something along the lines of skills in expressing and understanding high-level ideas in clear, conventional ways to a variety of levels. How abstract is that? Standardized tests can’t test abstractions very well, and they struggle mightily with assessing how a student expresses himself.
As far as I know, none of the big tests looks at students’ ability to speak, to use verbal abilities to inform or persuade. One of the most basic skills in communication is speech, but we leave that out completely when we assign a student a standardized English score. Would anyone argue that speech isn’t an important aspect of someone’s education? Nobody in my department would, but the PSAE doesn’t give us any information on how well its students speak.
Then there’s what I would argue is the most significant, meaningful measure of a student’s abilities in English—the essay. (See “Grading Writing, Part I and II” for more on this.) Writing, in my view, trumps any other means of determining what a kid can do in English. Any nerd can memorize a bunch of vocabulary words, but the English studs get separated from the duds very quickly when everyone is asked to explain how far down the road current society is in comparison to the future predicted in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Every skill needed in English (with the exception of the aforementioned speech skills) could be incorporated in writing an answer to that essay test question: reading comprehension, literary analysis, idea evaluation, organization, creativity, diction, and grammatical skills, to name a few.
I’m telling you—read that essay and you’ll know something about that kid’s English abilities. But most standardized tests have ignored writing as too difficult to assess objectively and logistically. The few attempts to measure writing ability are illustrative of the challenges in this area. Next time we’ll take a look at some of the disastrous attempts which have been made to test writing on standardized tests.