Testing Tangles


My friend, John Macnab, who has an excellent, thought-provoking education blog, posted some time ago about Timeliness and Grading. I responded with the following comment:

“IMO, there are exactly two reasons to give a test:

1) To sort students.
2) To help students learn more.

I believe reason #1 is the main reason tests (in particular, standardized tests) are given. We know this because for most standardized tests, teachers and students get no feedback at all about what items have been missed and why. Certainly by the time results of any kind are received, the student has moved on to a new teacher.

If the purpose of a test is to learn more, then it needs to be designed as such, and teachers need to treat them as such. Why, then, would there need to be a score? When was the last time your tennis coach gave you a precise grade on your backhand? Would that have helped you play tennis any better?

The same can be said for end of term grades. To my mind, there are two reasons to give end of term grades:

1) To sort students
2) To let the student know what the teacher thinks of the student’s ability over the term.

Again, how is knowing that I’m a 65 student and not a 75 student meaningful in terms of improving my learning? How does it point me in the direction that I need to go in order to improve in the future?

So, basically, the reason for grades is to sort students. Once we acknowledge that, we can then have an honest discussion of whether such sorting is a good thing or a bad thing.”

John wrote another post, in reply, where he offered up the comments of a Canadian educator, Dr. Jacqueline Leighton, defending the use of standardized testing.

I replied as follows:

“I’m afraid, though, that Ms. Leighton’s comments are woefully inadequate and reside somewhere in the realm of fantasy rather than reality.

First she says: “students working with different teachers, and completing different assignments and assessments during the year can end up with the same teacher-awarded grade at the end of the year — say, 85 per cent — but actually possess very different levels of preparedness, learning and mastery.”

But this is exactly true of two students who receive an 85 on a standardized test. In fact we even know *less* about these two students than before–we know *nothing* about their preparation, their consistency, persistence, character, areas of high ability, obstacles faced and obstacles overcome. In short, the student has been erased in favor of some numerical ranking. A ranking that totally obscures precisely the fact that an 85 for one student could means something very different for another. One student knows nothing about logarithms while the other knows nothing about quadratic equations. But they are both 85 students. Standardization means precisely that there will be loss of information about the individual data points we call students.

But more incredible are her assumptions a, b, c, d.

We have many years now (at least in the US) of reality to check against.

a) In fact, tests are very often *not* aligned with classroom practice.

b) In fact, tests are riddled with mistakes and sloppily worded questions. Testmakers are like any other industry and they seek to cut costs. In the US, Pearson is trying to make it a crime to release the questions to their tests, even after the tests are given, because they have *repeatedly* been embarrassed by the terrible quality of the questions. They have tried to force districts to buy computer equipment for the administration of their tests, and then the networks fail citywide and the tests have to be postponed.

c) Technical analyses for internal reliability are silly in a timed, scored test as these are. These are not personality tests. A student may *not* necessarily answer two questions the same, even though they appear to test the same content, if they appear in different contexts within the test. Do different answers mean that the student has not learned the concept? Should the student get no credit, half credit or full credit for that concept?

d) “Test results are constantly monitored so that the test continues to measure the appropriate content and skills in students who have learned the material well and achieved mastery.”
No, in fact experience shows just the opposite–rather than the test being a reflection of classroom practice, the high stakes test *drives* the classroom practice, and forces desperate teachers and students to focus all their energies on adjusting to the educational misconceptions of the test makers. The curriculum becomes dry, classroom time is spent on sussing out the test, and anything that cannot be tested in a standardized way is thrown out the window.

Instead of living only in theory, it’s important to test theory against what actual practice has been. Test makers have put out a call in the US for temps at $12 / hr to score the enormous numbers of standardized tests that are now being given. Yes, a student’s English essay is being scored by a $12/ hr temp–and a bachelor’s degree is not even a necessary requirement.

It’s all crap, and the proof is in the results. Leighton can write as many books as she likes from her ivory tower about quality tests, but we live in a real (capitalist) world, where private companies under a profit motive try to keep up with the (created) demand for their product. There is no quality, and there can be no quality. It’s all lip service. These tests provide zero information about a student that the student’s teacher could not tell you with far more accuracy; and they provide no information about a teacher that a teacher’s principal could not tell you with far more accuracy.”

You can read John’s thoughtful reply, right afterwards, but essentially he says, that in Canada, the tests of which Leighton is talking are teacher created and scored, much like our NY State Regents Exams. I am happy to hear that that is the case and that Testmania has not reached Canada yet. So I owe an apology for my tone and comments about Leighton.

So Canadian readers, I am glad your educational admins are still within the realm of rationality, while we in the US can only shake our heads in disgust at those who pretend to be concerned about education in this country.  If we don’t have a real conversation about what testing is for, I am afraid we will never get the educational system we need and deserve.

2 thoughts on “Testing Tangles

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jack. I was unaware of the situation with private exam publishers in the USA.

    Slight correction. In Canada, education is a provincial responsibility (with a couple exceptions, such as correctional services and some Reserve schools), so each provincial government has full control of curriculum and large-scale assessment. To the best of my knowledge, no Canadian province or territory uses commercial examinations for any credentialing or system-checking purposes.

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