The schizophrenic approach to testing

Face_Off copyOne of the major difficulties using standardized testing in school is our “schizophrenic” approach to the subject. Is the purpose of testing to ensure that the students is ready to go to the next level? Is it to see if the teachers are competent? Or is standardized testing the basis for grading the school/district itself?  The test and resulting remedial  instruction need to be dealt with differently for each approach. What works for one will not necessarily yield valid results for all three.

If the purpose of testing is to assure that the student is prepared for advancement, then the student needs to be tested on the actual course that they are taking that year. Periodic tests to benchmark progress are useful to determine which students require additional tutoring. Remediation can be provided in whatever manner works – by a specialist or even through e-learning modules. However, at the end of the semester/year the students must past the standardized  test to go on to the next level of that subject. Moving these tests increasingly earlier in the school year to to allow for second and third attempts by struggling students simply means that most other students no longer get a full school year’s worth of instruction. Often little learning goes on between the standardized test and the last days of school.

If tests are used to judge a teacher’s competency, procedures must be observed so that the resulting metrics are free of the bias caused by the differences that students bring to the table. It is absolutely naive to assume that all students of the same age have the same ability. The best way to approach this usage is to test students in the subject at the beginning and end of school year and look not at the final score, but the amount of improvement. Of course students that move during the year would cause problems – in two ways. Their scores could not legitimately be used in the statistics for either set of teachers. But their improvement is one of the most important characteristics in determining the true meddle of a teacher. These constantly moving students are the greatest challenge, showing the poorest performance on the standardized tests.

When school districts are graded based on student’s test achievement, administrators soon learn that they need to tackle this problem of transient students. Larger districts can offer the families the choice of letting students stay put when they move to the apartments with the free first month rent across town, but transportation cost can prohibit this from happening. School districts need to look at a number of services other than those offered by the teachers to help students learn. And then school districts do not have “equal” student bodies or equal amount of tax dollars per student. The students’ improvement adjusted by the amount spent per student should be a factor equal with actual student achievement for evaluating the schools and school district.

Standardized tests are not going away. We need to make up our minds on how they are going to be used.

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