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Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 04/22/2011

Myths of Standardized Tests’ authors respond to readers

Last week I published excerpts of a new book called “The Myths of Standardized Testing: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do,” that prompted a number of comments from readers. Below, the authors of the book, Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith and Joan Harris, have responded.
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By Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith and Joan Harris

We’d like to offer a couple of brief comments in reply to readers’ comments about a blogpost on The Answer Sheet about our book, The Myths of Standardized Testing: Why They Do’t Tell You What You Think They Do, and we also wanted to let everyone know that we’ve made the introduction available for download here at www.themythsofstandardizedtests.com. This chapter provides the background for our examination of the myths of standardized testing in more detail than Valerie could provide in the limited space of this blog.

We noted a couple of recurring themes in your comments.

The first is that standardized tests can be useful. We have no argument with that claim, though we would hold out for more information about the use you might want to put them to. If you’re going to try to judge how well Johnnie or Janie has learned the third-grade math curriculum, we think you’ll be disappointed and probably misled if the device you rely on is a standardized test. The domain of the content -- even in thrid-grade math -- is just too broad to be sampled by a brief selection of questions.

The first commenter pointed out that she uses the tests to see if she has covered all the bases with her children, whom she home-schools. We can see why she might want to do that, and we think it’s probably a good idea. Or in a similar vein, a school system might have purchased a new math curriculum and might want to know how well the kids are learning all of the material included. A low-stakes (please note!) test for which no special preparation (no wasted class time) would be able to point the teachers and administrators toward any areas that just weren’t getting across as well using the new materials. Then the teachers could redouble their efforts in these areas and perhaps supplement the formal curriculum with some added material.

A second and even more prevalent theme is that the standardized tests are objective. We don’t have the space to answer that question in detail here. In fact, there’s an entire chapter (Chapter 4) in the book that does so. Suffice it to say that the only truly objective aspect of standardized tests is the scoring.

A third recurrent theme has to do with the way we use -- we would say misuse -- the notion of “achievement.” Our culture as a whole does this frequently, and we did, too, before we began thinking hard about the topic. Again, we have a chapter on this topic (Chapter 3), but the short answer is that achievement is much broader than the narrow range of skills and acquired abilities that the standardized tests measure. We no longer refer to the “achievement gap” between minorities and white students; we now try to say, more accurately, the “test-score gap.”

Finally, we didn’t deal with Advanced Placement tests or with teacher-made tests at all. Our focus was the standardized tests that purport to measure student achievement and are used for purposes of accountability.

Teacher-made tests are very different, and, of course, they have their own problems with reliability and validity, but the significant advantage of such tests is that the teacher knows what she taught, what she stressed, and why she did so. Her test can be much more clearly focused on what her students learned. Now, if she’s wrong in judging what’s important about her subject, that’s a separate problem, but it’s not one that standardized tests can identify or rectify.

And don’t forget that a high school history teacher, for example, would have a pretty good handle on what were the most important events and actions leading up to the Civil War. She’d have a decent grasp of the relative importance of the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision, she’d know how she organized the instruction, she’d know what she wanted her students to take away from it, and she’d be in a good position to design an assessment (at least part of it would probably be a recognizable test) for her particular class.

The AP tests are certainly standardized in that the same tests are given according to the same set of directions, in settings as similar as possible, and scored in as consistent and reliable a way as possible. But they are not without problems, nor are they tests used for accountability, which were our primary focus in the book.

Just a word on some of the problems: Many college professors have questioned whether an AP student -- even one who scores higher than a 3 -- is really as well-prepared as a student who took the corresponding first-year college course. Indeed, despite the widespread notion that a 3 will earn college credit, it’s not so for calculus at a number of engineering schools. This argument about AP Tests has a long history, but as the number of test-takers has risen, so has the volume of complaints from college faculty.

Once again, thanks to everyone who took the time to read Valerie’s summary of our book.

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