Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Happy Birthday Standardized Tests!!!! Um...yeah.

My dad pointed out something to me on Facebook today: June 17 marks the 113th birthday of the American standardized test. I have to say that our country's education system has never really been the same since.

While China has had standardized tests for centuries, introducing them in America has been fraught with issues, which are well documented. The most important to me, frankly, is whether they actually predict future life success, or merely tell us who is set up to succeed in the first place.

For example, using an Excel regression analysis, I can predict 3 out of 4 Ohio school district standardized test performance ratings on the state's Performance Index Score. All I need to know is a district's percentage of children living in poverty, or their median income.

And despite the fact that American kids have never done well on international tests, the last 40-50 years has been dominated by the American economy (still #1 on GDP), we won the Cold War, and America has dominated the production of intellectual property.

So do these tests scores really tell us that we suck, or are in crisis? Do they tell us anything that's useful or predictive?

My son, who is 9, already has test anxiety because of the number and importance of these standardized tests. I'm seriously considering opting him out of future tests until high school.

However, not all testing is necessarily bad. Used to assess kids so teachers can better direct learning toward individual student needs is a great use, for example. Using them to assess teachers and classrooms? Not so obviously great.

However, I have great sympathy for the many parents I have met whose children were ignored until standardized testing -- and the accountability that came with them -- forced schools to pay attention and teach them. That has always been the standardized testing result that has kept me from advocating their immediate burning, though I certainly have a book of matches at the ready.

Then there's the promising work of Robert J. Sternberg, who was at Tufts University  for awhile (my alma mater -- shameless plug. By the way, we took him from Yale. How's that taste, New Haven?). Sternberg has developed tests that assess the creative, analytical and practical skills of students. One study from his work in the 1990s found that the students who did well on the analytical portion of the tests had the background of those who perform well on our standardized tests today -- more wealthy and white. However, on the creative and practical portions, the results showed a great mix of diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Other studies have verified those results.

Imagine if our high-stakes regime measured the other two categories? Maybe, then, traditionally low-performing Cleveland wouldn't qualify for Vouchers and Charters because their students do so well on creative and practical skills, while perhaps traditionally high-performing Hudson would qualify because their students don't?

Imagine that paradigm shift, eh?

As our testing regime becomes more high-stakes, and more importance is placed on succeeding on these things, perhaps it's time to develop tests that measure the whole student, not just their ability to analyze things and memorize. There's more to life than that, and there's more to schooling than that.

Until that happens, though, I fear all our testing regime will do is narrow curriculum, minimize the importance of the kind of thinking that can lead to true innovation and success, and force us into becoming a nation of rote learners who can't come up with ideas, but sure can tell you everything you need to know about someone else's.

Unless, that is, parents, administrators, teachers and others stand up and say, "No more!"