Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal – NYTimes.com

Atlanta Public Schools Open Amid a Testing Scandal – NYTimes.com.

This article from todays NYTimes is alarming, but not all that surprising to me. What is really being assessed when tests create so much anxiety and pressure on students, parents, teachers, and administrators?

As a teacher, I’ve gone from worrying about how well my students do, to actually focusing on their mistakes. Mistakes actually provide you with a lot more information. Being able to analyze kids’ errors helps me understand and reflect on what I need to change. When I look at a test item, and see that more than half of my class got the item incorrect, it’s a good place to start asking myself why.

Unfortunately, standardized tests are good for expediency, but not always good for learning. The wrong answer doesn’t always provide enough insight. Take 2-digit subtraction with regrouping (borrowing), for example. If a child got the answer wrong, was it due to a misunderstanding of place value, did the child have a directionality issue, did they miss a step in the algorithm, did they simply add by mistake. A good standardized test may include incorrect answers that reveal some of the reasons, but not necessarily all. The only way to know for sure is to observe a child doing the problem and then asking them to explain what they did and why. It’s amazing the kind of insight you can gain from a few simple questions. Furthermore, with a test that provides four possible answers there’s a good chance your student had no clue, but guessed correctly. The correct answer provides very little information.

The other problem with some of the standardized tests out there, is the timeliness of the test-makers correcting and returning the results. By the time many schools get them back, it’s well past the point that they can inform the teacher with something useful about what they can change. With NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and RTTT (Race to the Top), the focus of test scores often becomes, “How did we do?” rather than “What can we learn from this?”

Many test companies are going to computer testing, which I think is great in terms of timeliness, but I wonder how kids 7 and under will do with a mouse. I’d rather the little ones touch their answers on a touch screen, but I suppose a mouse isn’t that far removed from filling in bubbles with a pencil.

This news story isn’t the first of its kind, but I hope it helps change the kind of pressure and anxiety that these tests can place on everyone involved. I’m not opposed to standardized tests; I think there’s a place for them. We have to keep asking, though, what are these tests actually testing and how can they help us be more effective. I hope that the policy makers behind NCLB and RTTT can learn from their mistakes and make student assessment something that’s actually FOR students and teachers rather than an assessment OF them.

I have one other minor criticism about these tests: they create a mindset of having only one right answer to a problem. While this may be true for a test item, we know that innovation comes from thinking outside the bubble and entertaining many possible solutions to more complex problems. By all means use standardized tests, but also include student interviews, their own reflections and assessments, observations, and the myriad of other assessment tools available.

Metrics

Whether you love her or hate her, Lady Gaga has, in a very short time has become recognized around the world. This article from Fast Company talks about the gold standard of physical album sales (CDs) as the measurement for success. But she’s just reached over a billion views on youtube, sold songs in multiple formats, mp3 singles, etc.

The article says that it’s time for a much more robust way at measuring success and that there is plenty of other data to look at.

Hopefully we do that with children too, but if you follow some of the news, we still have standardized tests as the gold standard of student success. There are many different kinds of assessments available for kids, including self-assessments, portfolio collections, demonstration of mastery, rubrics, etc. While standardized tests can provide useful information if you get the results in time to actually DO something with them (like play to the child’s strengths and challenge them, or work on any observable gaps the results may produce), so often you hear of schools using the results as a way to punish or reward a school. Whether you’ve read Freakonomics (by  Levitt and Dubner) or Drive (by Daniel Pink), you know that the carrot and stick formula will either promote cheating, teaching to the test, or even worse apathy and lack of motivation. Even in education, standardized tests need to evolve so that they are a useful tool to help kids and teachers reach their full potential.

Do you know how successful your students are? Probably more important a question to ask is: Do your students know how successful they are?