JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools

pictures and stories from the water’s edge

JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools header image 2

What do tests test?

August 21st, 2004 · No Comments

I’ve seen a number of responses this week to the news Nation’s Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal, including public school parent and volunteer Paul Beard’s post as well as Jay McCarthy’s link to Andrew Moroz’s piece.

I don’t have a strong opinion on charter schools. But I do have an opinion on standardized tests. The only thing a test tests is how well you can take that test.

As a mom and an educator, I have experienced this principle while observing my daughter. Whenever she does practice exercises in a workbook I notice that what the workbook tests is how well she understands whatever it seems to want her to know. It’s not testing her reading ability, per se, but how her reading ability fits into the workbook’s standards. For example, the word “gang” is not often used in our home so Abigail was unfamiliar with it when it appeared in the notebook. This workbook also uses ambiguous pictures that are problematic: it is difficult sometimes to determine what is being illustrated. All tests have limitations, and what any test tests is a limited cultural response with certain requirements.

It is well-known, if not explicitly stated, that many public schools now teach for standardized tests. School test scores are monitored and also used as a part of the No Child Left Behind legislation implemented by each state. Teachers and parents alike are aware of this pressure.

When I was in the Bay Area this past week, a friend who is a parent and volunteer in her child’s public school, told me that new state tests have required reading to be taught in kindergarten, instead of first grade. However, she also described to me how each kindergartener seemed to be at a different level in the process, some of them apparently not ready to read yet.

Here on Bainbridge Island in 2003, when some students refused to take the state’s WASL exam, as protest against it, many reacted throughout the community. School officials claimed that those who were abstaining were hurting the entire school district, since their scores would be entered as 0 and averaged along with the other kids. There is pressure for students to take the test and to perform well, or else there will be consequences for the school district with regards to reputation, funding and government control (these are what were mentioned by the officials in letters to the editor). Of course property values eventually enter into the picture as well.

I will teach my girls how to take standardized tests. I want them to be able to play the game as well as other kids. But at the same time, I am taking the risk that the way I am teaching my children – which is not specifially oriented towards any exam – will provide them with a depth of skills and information necessary to excel on the tests.

It is interesting to note that the most competitive colleges do not rely simply on standardized test scores for admission, although they certainly could if they wanted to do so. Instead they also require grades, letters of recommendation, essays and interviews. A test score in itself is not an accurate measure of intelligence, potential collegiate achievement or desirability.

In this era where differences in learning disabilities and learning styles are recognized, I am surprised that so much emphasis is still placed on standardized tests which require a one-size-fits-all application.

The fact that public school students tested better than charter school students shouldn’t be surprising. The public school system, teachers and students alike, is geared towards standarized tests. Teachers teach for tests. Charter schools have more freedom regarding which methods they want to employ. The staff at a charter school, and perhaps the students also, may not have as much experience with standardized tests.

I do think Paul has a point, that putting time and effort into a child’s school will help it succeed. And I do think that watching test scores improve or decrease over a period of time, rather than just one year, will be more indicative, as Andrew Moroz proposed.

But I think the main problem is relying on standardized tests to prove the performance (and thereby the value and worth) of a school, whether it is public or charter.

Tags: homeschool