A Test a Day Keeps Good Teaching at Bay!

nurse_readingWhen one is ill, one goes to the doctor for tests to be done.

The tests are not a cure for what ails you. A test is simply a diagnostic tool. After the test, some protocol (a change in diet, lifestyle, medication, or even surgical intervention) needs to be undertaken in the hope of alleviating the symptoms.

We would never assume that a test cures the disease it diagnoses.

Except, that is, in the field of education. Politicians and bureaucrats tend to invoke a mantra of accountability buzzwords to address our concerns about academic achievement as though fear and trepidation about new assessments will somehow magically inspire all our young people to achieve at heretofore-unimagined levels. However, if students are not getting motivated for tests and quizzes administered by their teachers, with whom they have a personal relationship in the classroom, what makes a politician or bureaucrat think that these students will suddenly find their motivation to excel on a one-size-fits-all test written by strangers?

This is but an introduction to a perplexing conundrum.

Mention standardized testing in a room full of teachers and the reaction is quite likely to be visceral. Many teachers have come to mistrust the motives of those who mandate tests and to question the competency of the psychometricians who create them, and at times, yes, even to doubt the relevancy of what is being measured.

Many teachers contend that this rage for standardized testing is not really about improving education. Improving education would mean decreasing class size, paying teachers competitive salaries and supplying those teachers with adequate resources. Mandating tests is more about appeasing the three-quarters of the electorate that does not have school-age children with the “appearance” of doing something to improve education.

Furthermore, teachers are growing weary of threats of further “accountability”  (read that: punishing schools and teachers that fail to raise test scores) while being systematically denied adequate resources and working conditions necessary to perform the task. We may as well adopt a policy that punishes employees for falling ill as a result of their employer placing them in unhealthy working conditions.

It is certainly not that teachers are against tests per se. Teachers, this writer included, have been known to administer rigorous exams. One colleague said a while back, “If I thought testing would improve my students’ performance, I’d give them a test every day.” But “standardized” tests will not improve educational outcomes. Improved instruction in scenarios more conducive to learning will.

What follows is a cautionary yarn about the outcomes of high-stakes testing. Let’s play a game called “So Who Wants to Get Into Graduate School?” Here is an actual question from an actual diagnostic exam administered at a local four-year institution. It is in the form of an analogy.

“Too” is to “Loose” as “Low” is to:
A) Also
B) Tight
C) High
D) Trek

How many otherwise exceptionally talented people might be denied access to higher education because they were unable to make the necessary link to Nineteenth Century French Impressionism and the painter Toulouse Lautrec, or some other set of equally trivial factoids? Granted, this is but one egregious example of cultural bias in the world of “Gotcha!” testing, but it may be the subtle, less-transparent biases that are truly the more dangerous.

Admittedly, no test will ever be perfectly unbiased. The very act of choosing a topic to be questioned is a form of bias. But many tests are not even close to being adequately screened for cultural bias.

For example, this writer sat for the French section of the National Teacher’s Exam in 1986. Not one mention was ever made of Rabelais, Montaigne, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Baudelaire, Zola, Sartre or Camus; all of whom were on the required reading list for a Master of Arts in French Literature. No, at the height of the Political Correctness craze, every selection was from authors relegated to the “the supplementary reading list” such as Colette, Sand, Duras, Senghor and Dadié, undeniably wonderful authors all, but hardly the mainstays of French Culture and Civilization and certainly not the primary focus of my instructional program.

A good score did not prevent me from being perturbed that the test writers were more interested in punishing the test takers for what they had not studied than in rewarding them for what they had mastered. One is reminded of a quote from Charles Colton “…the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.”

Still, increasing awareness of bias and poor test design has resulted in significant improvements in our mass assessments. There is still a long way to go, but we appear headed in the right direction.

Of more concern to those involved in Public Education is the leaching of resources from classrooms by those fixated on the assessment of academic accomplishments.

First, these tests cost money. Standardized tests are, in fact, cash cows for the companies who design and grade them. Regrettably, for all this money we spend on these tests, the testing companies only tell us what we have, or have not, accomplished. A doctor does not just tell you that you are sick; he tells you how to get better. Unlike your doctor who tells you what you need to do to improve your health, the testing companies are not forthcoming about what classroom practices will facilitate improved cognitive development. What is garnered from all these millions funneled into standardized assessments?

The principal by-products remain finger pointing and blame-game scenarios.

While many teachers place their hard-earned dollars on the counter to buy such staples as pencils, papers and other supplies for their classrooms, the state mandates and funds standardized tests to the tune of millions of dollars. How many teachers, aides and counselors are sacrificed in the name of testing? How many textbooks, audio-visual supplies and computers are line item vetoed to pay for the design, administration and grading of standardized tests? Tests that in no way increase the yield of academic outcomes.

Second, testing has become a drain on the already overloaded educational calendar. We keep increasing the number of tasks our schools are to accomplish, but the number of hours in a school year has been virtually constant for over a century. Welcome to your neighborhood “Standardized Test Administration Center”!

While teachers contribute countless hours beyond the “contractual” day just to keep things running, they see their instructional program disrupted for days, and sometimes weeks, as they themselves become over-qualified test proctors instead of just underpaid teachers. Students and teachers, alike, are caught up in innumerable sessions of re-teaching concepts because for days-on-end half the class is somewhere else taking some mandated test. Over-testing has an irrevocably deleterious effect on the instructional program.

Let the Maryland State Department of Education go get the funds to bring in children and test them on as many Saturdays as they wish, but no more instructional time should be sacrificed on the altar of standardized assessments.

Our children do not need to be tested ad nauseum.  Students need every instructional minute that can be squeezed into a calendar.

Teachers do not need the results of “standardized” tests to write a prescription that will improve academic achievement. Educators need to assess learning in the classroom day-to-day , perhaps even a minute-by-minute. That may not be possible when three dozen “clients” are in the room.

Children need to interact with an energetic and committed teacher for more than 1.5 minutes per hour of instructional time. Children need instruction delivered in adequately resourced classrooms with adequate resources without the risk of becoming anonymous souls lost in the crowd. It is high time to return resources to the classroom instead of enriching for-profit educational testing companies.


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in late January of 2001.]

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