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.