Wednesday, August 22, 2007

School Testing, Evaluation & Money

NB: In running through my posts, I discovered a few unfinished ones so I've revised them and am now posting them. The first two paragraphs were written back in early July.

Lately the NYTimes has covered the issues surrounding school testing from a variety of angles: paying teachers (the article and the letters to the editor after) and then today's article
evaluating whether schools should consider bulk test results or follow individual students to gauge progress. I have also mentioned this before in my blog post Sunday Reader. All have at their basis a continued commitment to testing students rigorously and using that as a measure of whether they have learned something. And my basic problem with this idea is that what the tests measure is not really what is important! It's difficult to evaluate whether a student can think critically, weigh information and make an informed decision, use higher order thinking skills and so forth. Some tests do this, but a multiple choice test will always be limited by its possible answers. Regardless, though, this is not what tests are actually measuring for No Child Left Behind.

NCLB tests are minimum competency tests, designed to establish a bottom level of achievement. Today's NYTimes article discusses how schools are finding that gifted students are not achieving better on these tests, which could be accounted for in two ways: gifted teachers realize that what the tests teach are not as important for students who have mastered most of the material before and take up a lot of time and thus those teachers focus on different skills or the tests are really measuring difficult material. But as we're seeing growth on the lower ends (where the tests are most specifically taught to), I'm inclined to go for the first option.

Which pulls us full circle to the issue of what the testing is supposed to accomplish. Are we evaluating the overall achievement of a school population, or seeking to encourage -- and demand -- individual growth and progress. And here is where I think testing diverges from the goals it wishes to achieve -- I'm assuming that the latter
is in fact the goal. The one-size-fits-all model of teaching is anathema to individual progress, but changing the way we track students (i.e. judging a school's progress on individuals improving) will not address the more important problem that the basic competency tests are not appropriate or useful for gifted students. They aren't evaluating these students by beginning where these students are competent and then pushing them to excel; rather, they tell them they "exceed expectations" on a scale of minimum comptency and everyone is happy.

So by all means begin tracking students individually (as this will help everyone and insure that no child is overlooked in the race to have 98% achieve a passing rate -- this is the standard in
north Fulton County where I used to teach), but this must lead to tests that match the student's ability and can be tailored to an advanced curriculum for advanced students. If we are to continue this testing nonsense, then we need to move towards tests which are geared towards students who score in the 50% percentile (average) and different tests for those who depart from this mean. Otherwise, teachers are forced to teach shopworn material, administer tests (and practice tests) frequently on material that does not effect the student's knowledge at that moment. Perhaps such an approach could also lead to less multiple choice and more short answer and essay questions, which require much more from students than educated guessing. And allow teachers to emphasize critical thinking skills and writing instead of mere factual recall. And maybe this approach will return us to a system where we start teaching again rather than teaching plus teaching for that test.


teanatl said...

Don't know if you've seen it or not but the cover of the current issue of Time magazine is devoted to the issue of how our schools are failing our smartest kids.

When I was in elementary school I was one of the bright kids and was way ahead of most of the other kids in my class. Like most intelligent kids I was "hyper"...I couldn't sit still and I couldn't shut up. They dealt with it by banishing me to the cloak room...which turned out to be like throwing B'rer Rabbit in the brier patch. The cloak room was not only the repository for coats and hats and such but served as a storage area for books and magazines. About the only thing that could occupy my attention long enough to slow me down was a good book. I loved to read and devoured books. Sometimes I would pick up a book and literally not put it down until I'd finished it. In the cloak room I was surrounded by boxes of National Geographic magazines, textbooks, literary anthologies, almanacs, and encyclopedias. I happily wiled away the hours reading everything I could lay my hands on. That was the gifted program at Bibb City Elementary School. It did affirm one thing I've always felt to be true and that is...the key to learning is to read, read, and read some more. Einstein once said that if you want your kids to be intelligent read them fairy tales, if you want them to be more intelligent read them more fairy tales. If you teach someone to read and fire their imagination...they'll educate themselves.

The fallacy of all this testing nonsense is that education shouldn't be about regurgitating certain facts and names and dates but about the process of learning to think for yourself and learning to love the learning process, so that you'll maintain your sense of wonder and curiosity about the world even after you leave school and become a life long learner.

While there may have to be a certain amount of testing for the purposes of maintaining a minimum standard and for accountability, the emphasis that's being placed on test results today is driven mostly by political expediency. The public is demanding a solution and the politicians want to be seen as "doing something" about the problem. In reality it's much ado about nothing. The solutions the politicians are offering are weak and ineffective.

The real solution, as usual, rests with each and every individual taking personal responsibility for the education of their children. The government can't come in and apply some miracle reform to the educational system to change it. Real change can't be imposed from the top down, it has to grow from the grassroots. Parents need to be more involved in their kids education and in the schools and the schools need to do more to reach out to local communities and businesses for resources and support. Everyone needs to be more creative and stop depending on someone else to do something. Get involved! Democracy is a participatory sport!

Chelsea said...

The only problem I see with the Grassroots effort is that parents are convinced that high test scores mean something important. I had so many parents start out a year with test scores, asking what was wrong that their child scored lower in one category or was only making 93% instead of 100%. We've become so numbers oriented as a culture that we also need to demonstrate lifelong learning habits amongst the adult population. But many adults feel that things need to further their careers or they aren't going to be successful. Thus they have less time for cultural or intellectual pursuits. I'm glad I didn't grow up that way! (And don't intend to structure my life in that fashion. But it helps that I work in Academia which offers many different sorts of options than the fast track.)

I feel people are starting to recognize that our culture is too fast paced and driven, though CNN had an article the other day that literally heralded, "Are Americans Lazy?" (and then proceeded to misuse data to suggest that we work less than other nations in the world. Ludicrous!

teanatl said...

That's funny because I was just talking to Florence, the cleaning lady here at the office complex, and she was saying that she'd lived in several places in Europe and in Canada before coming here and from her observations, Americans work harder and longer than people anywhere else in the world. And increasingly we're working harder for less and less.

I think that's one of the things that fuels this obsession with test scores...fear. Fear that your kid won't get a good job if they don't get into the right school and that sort of thing. Also, costs. With the costs of higher ed skyrocketing parents are afraid they won't be able to afford to send their kids to a good school unless they're high achievers in academics or athletics. The irony is that in order to truly succeed you have to overcome your fears. Fear makes people choose the safe, well traveled path. You look at the people who're really successful in any area, business, art, politics, and inevitably you find people who're willing to follow their intuition and stray from the beaten path. People who aren't afraid to fail. As a friend of mine once told me, "No guts, no glory." You can't measure that with test scores. Maybe that's why so many remarkable people like Thoreau, Einstein, and Bill Gates were poor students when measured in this context.