Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions you’re not supposed to ask

The Answer Sheet reports on a school board member who decided to take his state’s high-stakes standardized tests and make his scores public, because of his growing doubts about the tests’ value:
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

. . .

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”
Yet the unquestionable “need” to raise those test scores now drives everything that happens in our schools. How much drudgery and obedience training have been imposed on kids for the sake of it? The article continues:
My school board member-friend concluded his email with this: “I can’t escape the conclusion that those of us who are expected to follow through on decisions that have been made for us are doing something ethically questionable.”
I can’t escape that conclusion either. Read the whole post. My related thoughts here.


FedUpMom said...

Very interesting. I wish they would publish the questions that were on the test, so we could see for ourselves.

It is amazing that people take test results seriously without knowing what was on the test.

Karen W said...

Released FCAT tests are available at http://fcat.fldoe.org/fcatrelease.asp

It isn't clear to me which version he took (one of the released ones or one currently in use).

Karen W said...

Chris--I don't disagree with your comments but I had some other thoughts on the column. One is that the expectation we should defer to experts in education policy is so pervasive that instead of providing examples (or links) to the test or data from the district about 3.0 students who allegedly can't pass these tests, the author instead suggests we should defer to his unnamed friend's judgment because he has multiple (unspecified) college degrees. And a paid-for condo in the Caribbean! And influential friends! And frequent flyer miles!

At this point, I think it is difficult to talk about standardized tests without seeing the actual questions AND knowing the raw scores (percent correct) required to pass. We might have other questions as well--like how much time is the testing taking out of instructional time and how much other testing is going on. But at this point, I am unwilling to take the "experts" word for it that any particular test is unreasonable or too hard.

Karen W said...

The other thought that I had is that some testing opponents are just as much a threat to a broad curriculum as standardized testing proponents may be. I am truly horrified by the idea of a curriculum that is limited to just the things one person and a few of his friends think they actually use in "real life."

Personally, I'm a fan of a liberal arts education. I think that a good education goes well beyond job training. It is absolutely true that no one has ever paid me to quote Shakespeare (or anything else from any literature class I ever took) but I am grateful my education included many things that are not plainly required for my "real life."

Chris said...

Karen -- I had some similar thoughts, especially about the idea that everything in school needs to have a connection to "real life," -- i.e., what it takes to get a paying job. But I thought the school board member was pretty careful about not actually saying that. As I understood him, he wasn't saying that everything in school had to have a practical use, but that any test that is used for sorting people onto different tracks of life ought to have some connection to what they are being sorted for.

I certainly don't want school to be confined only to making the kids employable someday, and I have the same feelings toward liberal education that you have. But I do think that it's harder to justify compelling kids to study X rather than Y, if missing out on X does no concrete harm to them as adults.

I've often wondered why we not only require all kids to learn trigonometry, but also use it as a major criterion for sorting people in the college admissions process. How many adults in America know trigonometry? Yet the world goes on. I'm sure it's a great subject to study if you're genuinely interested in it, but so are a lot of other things.

But I agree that the guy's story needs some more scrutiny. Good way to start the ball rolling, though.

Doris said...

Periodically, Chris, I stop and ask myself if you aren't painting an overly negative picture of what's going on at your children's school as far as the emphasis on behavior and testing. Then I log onto the website (tonight planning to look for some info about what's being taught in 5th/6th science), and here's what I find on the home page:

Students: We are proud of your accomplishments so far this year! Congratulations on completion of the many assessments that have occurred: DIBELS, DRAs, Iowa Assessments, and the District Writing Assessment. Your behavior and academic achievements are to be commended!