Education and testing

Recently I have read several articles about various aspects of the education system in the U.S. Most people agree that our educational system is not wholly successful. However, that’s where the discussion about how to improve the system begins – and where the agreement ends. Everyone has a different idea about what success looks like and how to measure it.

Two recent articles in The Washington Post were critical of standardized testing. One describes the results (and implications) when an adult – a school board member – took the 10th grade standardized math and reading tests. The adult, to put it mildly, did not do well on the tests, and said, “It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning.” (Apparently this issue persists through higher education as well; employers are finding that college grads lack job skills.)

Another article cited the revolt of New York state school principals against students’ test scores being used to evaluate teachers. The most problematic part of this plan is that there has been no pilot testing. In an “open letter of concern,” the principals wrote, “We are very concerned…that at the state level, change is being imposed in a rapid manner and without high-quality evidentiary support. Our students, teachers and communities deserve better. They deserve thoughtful reforms that will improve teaching and learning for all students.”

After giving background and articulating specific concerns, they offer recommendations, one of which is, “Pilot and adjust the evaluation system before implementing it on a large scale. Any annual evaluation system should be piloted and adjusted as necessary based on field feedback before being put in place state-wide. In other words, the state should pilot models and then use measures of student learning to evaluate the model.”

Tests are an instrument of measurement; pilot tests are essential to ensure that the tests are measuring what they are supposed to be measuring. Furthermore, in the evaluation and assessment part of the research process, testing is only the “gathering data” step – but there’s no point doing assessment at all if you aren’t going to act on the results. Testing, in large part, confirms what we already know; what are we going to do about it?

An op-ed by Duke professor Helen Ladd and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges Edward Fiske in The New York Times earlier this month cited the acknowledged and proven correlation between economic advantage and student performance. Federal education policy, they write, does not take this into account. Setting testing requirements will not help; supporting high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs will, they suggest.

There are a few takeaway points from all this. One: Standardized tests must be tested themselves before being used state- and nation-wide to assess student learning and achievement, or to assess teachers and principals. Two: There is little purpose in testing at all if the true problems are not going to be addressed, and if insufficient support is going to be given to solve these problems. And lastly: Education ought to prepare students for their adult life; it ought to arm them with higher-order thinking skills (i.e. application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation).


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