Testing 4, 5, 6…
June 13, 2013
By Sari Levy
As I mentioned yesterday, I do not think testing is guilty of every charge leveled against it, particularly the accusation that it narrows the scope and content of what is taught in classrooms. However, I do think we should look at ways to make testing more efficient and less burdensome.
The second complaint about testing is that it’s a poor use of classroom time. (it’s not productive, causes anxiety, costs a lot of money, and so on.) Most people find taking tests about as much fun as going to the orthodontist. Here, I sympathize. As a percentage of total school time, testing may not be as time consuming as perceived (an analysis of Colorado’s time/$ spent testing can be found here), but even advocates of testing talk about finding smarter ways to test.
When it comes to the administration of statewide assessments, I’m reminded of the days when orthodontists used to hammer a metal brace around every single tooth to straighten them. Then, one day during the 1970s someone came along with the right adhesive, and the life of the American teenager was forever changed with what we commonly know as braces. Then came Invisalign. Soon (says Wikipedia, where I get most of my orthodontic history), “smart brackets contain[ing] a microchip [will] measure the forces that act on the bracket and subsequently, the tooth interface” thus minimizing time that braces have to be on at all.
We haven’t come quite as far on the testing front as we have in orthodontics.
Every kid in public school still sits through hours of tests so that we can analyze their results to aggregate, diagnose problems, see trends and find outliers. The data is typically broken apart by race/ethnicity, poverty, and grade level–though it is also starting to be used to identify the “value add” of the teacher. Very rarely are standardized tests used to find out how “Johnny” is doing on his standardized test or is the information used to modify instruction. (That’s what formative assessments are for.) The usefulness is mainly at the policy level so that schools can self correct, districts can manage their portfolios and make interventions, and states can assess educator programs, school models, district performance, etc.
That said, while I’m no testing expert, I believe there are ways to test smarter. Common Core is aiming toward developing better assessments and paving the way for more consistent tests to be administered across states. Organizations like PARCC have spent months developing assessments to link to common standards. However, if these assessments are only contributing to the burden of test-taking, it will be a missed opportunity to test smarter. That is, why couldn’t the next generation of assessments and the way they are administered be different from the way we’ve done them for the past 30 years?
Here are some ideas (shots in the dark) that have been tossed around for ways to make standardized tests more palatable:
1. Far fewer test items? Do we need to test every math concept or would a smaller set of problems administered with a computer adaptive test produce the same result?
2. Randomly sampling students? This is what NAEP does. Is there a way to validate the methodology and sample from all subsets of students? It might make cheating far harder and less attractive for schools.
3. Better questions? Can we go deeper (a more “authentic” assessment) with fewer items and perhaps fewer students? Note that the Hewlett Foundation has been working on problems like electronic scoring of essays.
4. A more palatable way of taking tests? What if students took short quizzes throughout the year instead of prepping for a week of exams?
Or better yet, can we promote a competition for the nations’ entrepreneurs, software engineers and testing experts to engage in a serious “unthinking” of testing as we know it without doing away with the much needed accountability that testing enables?
Surely, learning how to endure grueling tests has benefits: notably, it is the kind of activity that might build and demonstrate grit. We can’t expect school and learning to be all fun, all the time.
Yet, the backlash against testing will only grow stronger if it’s not addressed in some meaningful way.
I believe that testing and accountability aren’t going anywhere, but we education reformers cannot and should not promote testing without recognizing that we can test smarter. Doing so would be a (rare) win for everyone.
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