Posted in ISTEP, Testing

It’s “That Time of Year” Again

THE WRONG KINDS OF TESTS

While the supermajority in the Indiana legislature is busy thinking of ways to label students, further reduce collective bargaining for teachers, and divert even more taxpayer money to private schools through expansion of the nation’s most expansive voucher program, teachers in the state’s public schools are still trying to do the best they can for their students during a difficult part of the school year.

Yes, it’s “that time of year” again, and instruction time will be limited while the tool used almost exclusively for labeling, blaming, and punishing, is filled out, and shipped off for grading.

It’s time to take…

I’ve posted comments in the past from an experienced Indiana teacher who has been writing to me on and off for the last year. The last time was during last year’s testing window. The latest email came yesterday.

This year, my teacher friend commented on how developmentally inappropriate the tests are…

[Where is the data] that shows how critical thinking, problem solving, abstract thinking, etc. are developed in the brain? I’m certain there is also data that shows the impact of genetics on these areas, as well as a scale showing that these ‘aptitudes’ grow/develop in stages in a child. It would also show that these aptitudes, and the time frames by which they develop, vary widely…very widely. Therefore, the tests are fatally flawed as a tool to determine ‘skill’ levels. Kids develop very differently, and I bet that very bright kids can blossom well after third grade.

I reminded her of the work done in developmental psychology by Piaget and Vygotsky. Given a rational approach to education her questions and my response would be the start of an interesting discussion about Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage (ages 7 through 11) and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, but we don’t live in a society with a rational approach to education.

DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE

I put Piaget and Vygotsky aside and instead wrote,

I will assume that this discussion on testing is not about whether we ought to have the tests or not. Because, believe it or not, there was a time when not every grade from K through 12 wasted weeks of the instructional year on testing specifically for the purpose of giving the school and school corporation a grade, evaluating teachers, and giving “reformers” fuel for privatizing public education through the redirection of funds to charters and vouchers. And, despite what you might have heard from legislators and politicians, that IS what the tests are used for. Frequent meetings about “data” are an expensive waste of time. The point of the meetings is finding ways to increase test scores – to “improve the data.” The time spent on helping kids learn – really learn, not just improve their test scores – is limited. The tests and everything surrounding them are a monumental waste of time.

The school system in which this teacher works focuses on test scores, not because they aren’t interested in true, high-quality education, but because, in order to survive in Indiana, public schools have been forced to obsess over tests, tests, more tests, and even more tests. Administrators, school board members, parents, students, and teachers, are all sick of the testing, because it really doesn’t give the teachers anything more than what they already know from professional observation in the classroom and teacher assessments. It should not be used to guide instruction because 1) the results are rarely returned in a timely fashion, 2) it’s unreliable information and 3) there are dozens of variables which are never tested that are important to the teaching/learning process. Student test scores based on arbitrary standards are pretty low on the list of what ought to be used to determine what to teach next. Unfortunately, testing companies are still out to make a buck and there are plenty of politicians who are willing to help them for a cut of the profits dumped into their campaign coffers.

Nevertheless, the questions my teacher friend asked were about the developmentally appropriateness of the tests. So I added,

I do think that 8 and 9 year olds are capable of higher level thinking…analysis, elaboration, evaluation, and synthesis. Critical thinking and problem solving are also within the skill range of many 8 and 9 year olds. The problem arises when someone has to come up with a contrived method of evaluating a child’s way of using those skills. That’s where 8 and 9 year olds have trouble because abstract thinking develops slowly. By 8 and 9 many children have grown to the point of understanding abstracts…but the understanding is still “childish,” fluid, and unstable. For example…it’s often during second and third grades when kids finally begin to understand the truth about Santa Claus…that he can be understood as an abstract, rather than a concrete human being (or elf). Even those who still believe are beginning to see that something isn’t quite right with the story (Every chimney in the world in just one night?), and it takes a while for this understanding to sink in. The development of an internal understanding of abstraction doesn’t just suddenly appear…it grows.

So, a well-written achievement test for third graders WOULD include questions about abstract thinking, and higher level thinking skills, because some of the kids might be at that level and a good standardized test always has a sizable amount of material at a higher level to help identify higher achieving students.

The important words in the last paragraph are “a well-written achievement test” and “a good standardized test.” Neither of those phrases apply to ISTEP, or IREAD-3, or likely any test based on “standards” as we define them today.

THE WRONG KINDS OF WAYS

In Rise Above the Mark, Linda Darling Hammond said,

The problem we have with testing in this country today is that, number 1, we’re using the wrong kinds of tests, and number 2, we’re using the tests in the wrong kinds of ways.

The tests we use aren’t fair because they judge children based on developmentally inappropriate standards. Achievement tests aren’t designed to be “fair” or “unfair” in the way they judge students. They aren’t designed to “judge” anything at all! They are designed to measure students’ knowledge of the tested material.

If standardized tests are used at all they should be used by teachers and parents to identify areas of need for students and guide educators in planning for instruction. If that’s not what’s happening then we should stop using them. Period.

STOP using test scores to judge children.
STOP using test scores to evaluate teachers.
STOP using test scores to grade schools.

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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.

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