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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/15/2011

The myths of standardized testing

Are the following statements true or false?

*Students’ knowledge and skills can be assessed by a sample of content that makes up a 45-question test.

*High test scores of students at any particular school prove that there is high student achievement and quality teaching at the institution.

*Punishments or rewards to teachers or students based on test scores motivate them to do better.

*A standardized test score is a better reflection of student learning any any other form of assessment.

*If the stakes to a test are high enough, people will work harder and improve their performance to meet the challenge.

These are common myths of high-stakes standardized tests, which have become the focus of modern school reform and used to evaluate schools, students and, increasingly, teachers.

Plenty of people believe these to be true, though they are not, as explained in a new book, appropriately called, “The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do,” by Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith and Joan Harris.

The book explains, using a load of research, why high-stakes standardized tests are less objective than many people believe, why they don’t adequately measure student achievement, how the results distort the validity of the assessment system, how these tests “inadvertently” lead young people to become “superficial thinkers,” and much more.

The easy-to-read book does not only look at what’s wrong with tests but also discusses what “genuine accountability” looks like.

This is all especially important today as Congress considers whether and how to rewrite the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, the major education of the former Bush administration that ushered in the era of high-stakes testing. Thus far, the Obama administration’s policies have done nothing to change the dynamic, and in some cases, have even encouraged states and school districts to raise the stakes by linking test scores to teachers’ evaluation and pay.

Here are a few excerpts from the book:

“As psychometrician Daniel Koretz puts it, scores on a standardized test ‘usually do not provide a direct and complete measure of educational achievement.’ ... Tests can measure only a portion of the goals of education, which are necessarily broader and more inclusive than the tests could possibly be.... Here is Gerald Bracey’s list of some of the biggies that we generally don’t even try to use standardized tests to measure:

creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity


“Surely these are attributes we all want our children to acquire in some degree. And while not all learning takes place in classrooms, these are real and valuable ‘achievements.’ Shouldn’t schools pursue goals such as these for their students, along with the usual academic goals? Of course, a teacher can’t really teach all of these things from a textbook. But, as Bracey points out, she can model them or talk with students about people who exemplify them. But she has to have enough time left over to do so after getting the kids ready for the standardized test of ‘achievement.’

“In fact, there are more problems associated with the impact of standardized testing on ‘achievement’ than simply the fact that the technology of the testing cannot efficiently and accurately measure some vitally important attributes that we all want our children to ‘achieve.’ Alfie Kohn put it this way:

‘Studies of students of different ages have found a statistical association between students with high scores on standardized tests and relatively shallow thinking....’

“So by ignoring attributes that they can’t properly assess, standardized tests inadvertently create incentives for students to become superficial thinkers--to seek the quick, easy and obvious answer....”

---

“Tests drive instruction. They will continue to do so as long as anyone cares about the scores, and merely publishing the results for each community school in the local newspaper is enough to give the scores weight and cause people to worry about them. So we need to stay alert to the direction in which the tests are driving instruction. We think it is clear that the current frenzy of accountability testing is driving instruction away from long-term projects and investigations whose outcomes aren’t known and whose evaluation depends to some extent on direct human judgment. The outsized emphasis on test scores has driven instruction toward items with one clear, right answer, in an attempt to prepare students for what really counts--the standardized test.

“You’ll often hear someone say that a good test is one that teachers should be pleased to teach to. But this proposition concerns us. When it comes to whether teaching to the test is a worthy goal, we don’t worry so much about the items on the test.... We think that a far more important issue is almost always overlooked in policy discussions: what’s not on the test.”

--

[This passage refers to the deadline written in No Child Left Behind that calls for most students in U.S. public schools to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, a goal that is expected to lead to virtually all schools being labeled failures because of the complex rules associated with meeting it.]

“Now we have a new federal administration, and it has proposed doing away with the 2014 deadline for proficiency. Surely, that’s a good thing, no? To which we reply, “Yes, but....” The big ‘but’ is that the ‘blueprint’ set out by President Obama and [Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan adopts the same approach to accountability as its predecessors did. The 2014 deadline has been replaced with a ‘target’ (they say it’s not an absolute deadline) that by 2020 all students (here we go again with ‘all students’) will be ‘college and career ready.’ But the same misunderstanding of accountability plagues the new proposal. That is, ‘college and career ready’ still relies on annual testing in grades three through eight and once during high school; still relies on rewards for success (i.e., high test scores) and ‘interventions’ for persistent failure (i.e., low test scores), and still fails to address the fundamental social, cultural and familial issues that strongly influence students’ performance. But ‘interventions’ are so much nicer than ‘sanctions,’ don’t you think?”

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