Let’s use – not abuse – standardized tests

Watching Frontline’s documentary of Michelle Rhee during the same week AP scores were released has me trying to wrap my head around this issue of standardized testing and how we should use test scores.

I know many teachers hate standardized tests of any kind — and for good reason. They cause anxiety. They are biased toward the majority culture. They don’t capture the full picture of what a student knows and can do; they leave no room for creativity; and they have become all-powerful (and limiting) in dictating what gets taught in our classrooms.

When I watched Rhee judging (and firing) principals and teachers solely on the basis of D.C.’s tests — regardless of any other factors, and without offering clear support on how to help students perform better — I was appalled.

And yet we know that before the era of high stakes testing, too many students were passing through our schools without anyone noticing that they weren’t learning. Let’s be honest — grades and classroom teachers’ tests are too inconsistent from school to school, let alone state to state, for us to know whether instruction is effective and whether kids are truly prepared for college and work.

What good does it do a child from rural Wyoming or inner city D.C. to get a C in a 9th grade English class, if they haven’t learned to read high school-level literature? Without standardized tests — and standards — we educate students in a local bubble rather than in the real world.

I don’t have a solution to the controversy over high-stakes testing, but I do have a few thoughts on how we should approach standardized testing:

  1. We need to be sure that any tests we give fit our goals for our students. If we want students to demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving, we can’t use tests that reflect breadth at the expense of depth. AP tests are better at this than most tests because they are designed by college professors and content-area teachers, who value application and critical thinking.
  2. If we are going to judge teachers on their students’ performance, we need to be very careful about how that is done, and it’s mostly done badly. If you can give my class of 35 students a thoughtfully designed pre-test and equivalent post-test on the same material, I’m happy to be judged by what those students have learned. But too many teachers don’t even have the same students at the beginning and end of the year. On top of that, many are judged by their school’s performance on subjects they don’t even teach. How is that fair or useful?
  3. We need to look at tests as disaggregated information rather than an aggregate conclusion. Just looking at what percentage of students pass a test has limited usefulness. What did they learn? What didn’t they learn? What are concepts or applications we need to teach better? We need to break down the results and use the information to improve instruction — the growth mindset — rather than simply dole out praise or punishment.
  4. Teachers need to take the lead in using test data for their own improvement. If your students have taken a test, mine the results yourself. Don’t wait for an administrator. Thanks to AP test results, I’ve been able to identify weaknesses in instruction — bank balance sheets and behavioral psychology, to name a few — and experiment with ways to teach those concepts better.

Despite the parental opt-out movement and the recent push to cut down on the number of standardized tests, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. Certainly not the ACT, SAT and AP tests and some level of state achievement tests.

The bottom line: Rather than fighting tests per se, we need to demand that the tests we use be useful to students, parents and teachers — not just administrators and politicians. Tests are information, so let’s use that information to do our jobs better.