Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Support Standardized Testing

I've been reading Dr. Paige's book The War Against Hope and came upon a fantastic paragraph regarding testing.

What has been most critical--and most threatening to the phalanx of teachers' unions and self-esteem gurus that defend the status quo--has been the steady increase in testing. Objectors of school reform have fought these measures hard, using every type of argument imaginable to try to scuttle and prevent reform. But, like the old Soviet bloc, a little glasnost will go a long way. The smallest beams of light on the system will be devastating. As parents and the public realize that it is their local school and their kids who are falling behind, the system will change. As the "report cards" on local schools come in, information and insight into the school down the street will provide the tipping point for change.

I support information transparency.

Update, 10/29/07: Commenter Dean and I teach at a relatively high achieving school in a well-to-do neighborhood. If testing went away tomorrow, our students, by virtue of their successful parents and the quality teachers at our school (Dean being one of them), would continue to do well. That isn't the case at many schools; some schools can rightly be called dropout factories.

WASHINGTON - It's a nickname no principal could be proud of: "Dropout Factory," a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. That dubious distinction applies to more than one in 10 high schools across America...

There are about 1,700 regular or vocational high schools nationwide that fit that description, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins for The Associated Press. That's 12 percent of all such schools, no more than a decade ago but no less, either...

The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around, because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones — the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services...

Federal lawmakers haven't focused much attention on the problem. The No Child Left Behind education law, for example, pays much more attention to educating younger students. But that appears to be changing.

House and Senate proposals to renew the five-year-old No Child law would give high schools more federal money and put more pressure on them to improve, and the Bush administration supports the idea.

Update #2, 10/29/07: I just came across a wonderful validation of one of my beliefs, in this week's EIA Communique:

The Guy is one of the few people (maybe the only one) in any specified location who can solve problems that aren't in the technical manual, the agency guideline, or the computer instructions. He or she may or may not be the manager. It's unrelated. The Guy quickly corrects your double-billing, replaces a washer instead of tearing out your bathroom sink, prescribes the perfect medication, or immediately gets you a new desk after your principal says it will take three months. You all know The Guy, even though it's getting harder and harder to find him or her.

The gap between The Guy and everyone else is growing. Morford blames it on lots of things. Kids lack intellectual acumen. They're lazy slackers. They're overprotected and wussified. They're overexposed to and overstimulated by television, video games and the Internet. And yes, he even blames standardized tests.

At the same time, he admits, there are many, many brilliant young minds out there. Were they lucky? Private-schooled? Affluent? (I don't think so. Affluent schools aren't immune.)

No. They're self-motivated.

Self-motivation is key.

Update #3, 10/29/07: Wow, I'm on a roll tonight on finding updates for this post--and I'm not even looking for them. I just stumbled upon this one from last week's Carnival of Education. In it, a student in Denver supports state standardized testing because it prepares her for *other* tests--like the ones needed to get into college. Agree or disagree, it's certainly an interesting perspective.


Nate Andrews said...

what they fear is that teachers need to teach, well, at least the basics. Now, I have my reservations about standardized testing. It often can stifle learning by focusing too heavily on particulars.

Considering the state of education today, I think a focus on particulars might wake up the rest of us how students don't know enough about the basics. Reform the schools and then get away from standardized tests. Better yet, students should have a more structured early focus on the basics so that higher grade teachers don't have to worry about teaching to the tests. Students would already know enough to pass them.

allenm said...

Paige may be right about the comparison to the old Soviet Union but there's enough in the way of differences to make the comparison suspect.

For one thing, the centralization of the Soviet Union is at odds with the two-level distribution of the public education system. The enabling legislation comes from the states so there are really fifty different public education systems. Then there are the zillions of school districts which have a lesser, although by no means unimportant degree of independence.

That mitigates against the sort of brittle collapse suffered by the Soviet Union.

What's different is that the state of the communication/information technology has changed startlingly and continues to change. *That* may be the change that spells the end of the public education system as it's currently constituted.

Darren said...

His complaint here isn't so much with the education system itself as it is with the teachers unions' control over that system. In that regard, the Soviet terminology is much more applicable.

Dean Baird said...

The tangential issues are all good fun and can act as springboards for attacks on whatever aspect of education one doesn't like.

Nevertheless, I nourish a hope that some testing advocate might offer an answer that won't make me laugh to a simple yet important question.

What is the motivation for students to do well on these "school accountability" test batteries? Specifically, the California Standards Tests.

What is the reward for achievement? What is the penalty for failure? Why is it that proponents of free markets expect students to knock out superlative test performances for free? ...Or the kindness of their hearts? Or for the common good of the collective? The logic starts to have a Red tinge to it.

As it is... No carrots. No sticks. No rewards. No punishments.

It's telling that California (and most--if not all--other states) refuses to test seniors. Everyone in the assessment biz knows seniors would intentionally blow off the tests. But most can't imagine that juniors, sophomores, and freshmen might be just as jaded. It boggles the rational mind.

Like I said, I hope for an answer. I've been looking for one for a very long time. And I think I've looked in places where such an answer should be.

So c'mon RotLC commenters; light me up with your wisdom!

Darren said...

I've got a great answer for you, Dean. If I remember on Monday, I'll hand-deliver it to you.

It's an article that has to do with successful people in life being those that are intrinsically motivated to do well even when they have no immediate personal reason to do well.

Success--that's something the adults and students in our community should relate to.

And the reason we don't test seniors is because they won't be around next year for us to help improve. Your selective cynicism is most interesting.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly believe that successful people in life are those who are intrinsically motivated to do well. However,after teaching for 15 years, I know that way too many students don't buy into these tests--don't try for trying sake or personal pride--since there is no grade, reward, penalty, retention, etc. Parents either don't care about the results, or immediately blame the teacher.
The full weight of the students' lack of interest/buy in falls onto the school. We work very hard to teach our students the required curriculum to mastery. We also work very hard to try to prepare our students for the tests--going over specific terminology that might be on the test, tips on how to take a multiple choice test (process of elimination), reviewing information, etc. When this is the primary data used to judge schools, it is frustrating.
Don't get me wrong, I do not think that schools should have no accountability, and that there is no validity to these tests, just that there is a disproportionate amount of weight behind them.

allenm said...

> What is the reward for achievement? What is the penalty for failure?

That's my question for the rest of the public education system. If a teacher's excellent what's their reward for excellence other then feeling good which the orthodontist won't accept to straighten the teacher's kid's teeth? If a principal's absolutely top notch what's the recognition, the reward?

If anything, the professionals are in greater need of some substantive form of recognition for excellence since there's no future reward comparable to that which might be dangled in front of an ambitious kid. Good teacher, bad teacher (and good principal or bad principal) the future holds no special payoff.

> His complaint here isn't so much with the education system itself as it is with the teachers unions' control over that system.

Yeah, it looks like that's Paige's beef. Too bad. The unions aren't the problem, they're just opportunists taking advantage of the problem. Measures taken specifically to keep the excesses of the unions under control are misguided at best, counterproductive at worst and don't address the underlying problem.

Anonymous said...

Accountability? Too many have it backward where education is concerned.

Accountability occurs when competent administrators, principals, teachers and support staff are focused on one thing: teaching as well as possible, which ultimately means providing the best possible educational opportunity for their students. Of course, students must take advantage of their opportunities. As Shakespeare said, "There is a tide in the affairs of men..."

One of the most pernicious unintended consequences of the mandatory testing movement is a complete breakdown in accountability and teaching, which is replaced by a massive bureaucratic mashine dedicated to producing data in the form of test scores. The educrats, of course, believe that these test scores reveal virtually everything there is to know about a given student, teacher and school. Those who actually teach know better.

How does accountability break down? Administrators, understanding that their continued employment hinges on one thing--high test scores--focus on whatever is necessary to obtain those scores to the virtual exclusion of all else. Principals, who understand that the pursuit of test scores requires the abandonment of huge blocks of teaching time to the drill necessary to pass the tests, abandon their role as educational leaders and turn into data generating machines. Teacher? Well, let's just say that we all know what rolls downhill and upon whom it ultimately rests.

It takes, you see, no competence and imagination to shift the entire focus of a school district from providing real educational opportunity to producing test scores. Any idiot can rigidly enforce that kind of regime. It does take skill and hard work to be out there in the classrooms, working with teachers, helping those who need help and learning from the exemplary, in the life-long process of learning. High stakes testing requires that administrators and principals stop asking of teachers "how can I help you teach more effectively? What do you need?"

Unions? Indeed, some are corrupt, counterproductive and plainly stupid, but that's not the issue here. Mandatory testing is a political invention designed to produce political results. It does that quite well. What it does not do is promote teaching, learning, or instill a love for learning in kids. Quite the opposite.

Darren said...

The testing "craze" came about because too many people in the taxpaying public didn't think students were learning. The fact that test scores have risen for so many groups have risen for so many years shows that we in the education business could, and should, do much better.

No one believes a test tells you everything you need to know about a student. Schools aren't there to divine all there is about a student, but I for one would be happy if they focused on education. A student who does poorly on a standardized test may know the material and not tested well that day, but the student who does well definitely knows something about the material being tested.

Dean Baird said...

Your answer about why we don't test seniors makes no sense to me. Where did you get it? I got my answer from colleagues on the SBE's Assessment Review Panel. It's a well understood axiom of standardized testing; no cynacism needed.

But I'm always eager to learn. So how do last year's tested juniors help us improve now that they're seniors? Let's say they did well in physics but scored poorly on the Physics CST. Now that they are seniors who passed physics last year (and are thus no longer enrolled in physcs), they'll help us improve by... (this is where I need your wisdom).

The intrinsic motivation thing reminds me of the color "testing" we did in pre-school (I mean before school started). My departmental colleagues were keen to apply the color-typing to their own classes until they test students and found they were all of one color (orange). Adults sort out different ways, but being a teenager is to be orange.

But you can test your intrinsic motivation in your own class. Announce you'll be giving a test that has no bearing on their grade. No benefit for excellent performance and no punishment for complete failure.

Let me know how it turns out. And, by the way; your students' performance on that test will be used as your evaluation.

You could also tell them to do homework for the sake of learning. Attend class or not (many HS students are over 16)... the list goes on.

We can curse B. F. Skinner all we like, but his ideas work to motivate children to learn. When the children become adults, we hope they will shed their need for extrinsic motivation. Some of them will.

Darren said...

A "well understood axiom"? If you can show me that that's the position of the SBE or the Dept of Education, I'll defer to that point.

And of course motivation matters. The question is whether that motivation should be internal or external, and which of those two types is more likely to breed success in the long term. I've already stated which way I believe.

Dean Baird said...

I believe in world peace and kindness to all creatures great and small.

It's just that, you know; reality...

(Just curious: Where was this altruistic spirit of yours at our last faculty collaboration? Did you intentionally sit out the chance to share this high-mindedness with our colleagues? Surely such reasoning was being directly solicited. Did I miss your presentation on this matter?)

Do you really, really think that people down at the CDE *don't* get that seniors would blow off standardized testing? There is no other tenable reason for their refusal to subject seniors to CSTs.

You want words on an official record. Why refuse to see the truth as told by there actions?

But I'll gladly cede the point if you can explain CDE's officially-stated reason for not testing seniors in a way that ten of our RAHS teaching colleagues would take seriously.

If you truly believe in intrinsic over extrinsic motivation, why not employ it in your classroom instruction?

I'll confess that I think 14-16 year-olds are far more receptive to extrinsic motivation. That's what I use in my classes. And it's worked pretty well for my students.

I know I wouldn't want to give my students a test that would bear no consequences (good or bad) for them *and* then be held personally accountable for the results. And I don't think that makes me unique. Nor does it reveal my position on the relative value of collective bargaining units.

Darren said...

Snarkiness and sarcasm count for a lot, until you direct them at me personally--and when you're wrong. At that point, you're not being a very nice guest.

At the last faculty meeting, my input was *not* solicited. In fact, Linda R. completely commandeered the group I was in and was not at all amenable to anything but her own way of doing things.

As for what our colleagues would take seriously from CDE, that's not my mission here. I do, however, marvel at your sudden belief in the intellectual correctness of our colleagues. Besides, I'm not going to let you throw back on me what I tossed to you--was your "well understood axiom" a statement of departmental position, or one person's opinion? Because if it's a "well understood axiom", I apparently failed to get the memo.

But the business about seniors is red herring anyway. Are we to ignore 11 years of testing information because seniors don't get tested? That doesn't seem to pass the common sense test.

I think, Dean, that you're somewhat spoiled by the students you teach. All of them are volunteers, the vast majority of them are college bound. You don't see the students that so many of the rest of us have to see, and even the rest of us don't see a school population like so many of California's schools. You might make an argument that our school, based on past performance, should be exempt from testing. I'd disagree, but at least that's a point on which people could reasonably disagree. I've also stated several times that both the federal and state testing requirements could use some tweaking; that position strikes me as eminently reasonable.

But if you believe that there should be no standardized testing anywhere, then either
a) you're so far out of the mainstream as not to be taken seriously, or
b) we *can* determine your position on the relative value of collective bargaining units, as your logic seems to fit that of the state's collection of bargaining units.

Dean Baird said...

Darren, you keep trying to force this into "black or white" argument. It's not. The shades of gray make it tougher to paint with a broad brush, but such is life.

I've learned to to expect the "you only teach the best and brightest" dismissal from most folks. Though I often hope for better from Rio colleagues, such hope is sometimes misplaced. Another harsh fact of life, I suppose.

Allow me to clarify so that the misperception does not persist.

At most schools, physics is reserved for students who have completed Algebra 2. At many schools, they must also pass chemistry. The physics teacher is High Priest to The Chosen Few, often the 20 smartest boys in the school.

In my time at Rio, I dismantled the Algebra 2 and chemistry prereqs so as to open Physics 1 to any student who passed Algebra 1. In 1997 we hired a second teacher to cope with the demand. When 67+% of the graduating class have had physics, it's tough to argue the class is reserved for the top echelon. And some of those "volunteers" that I teach were prohibited from the graduation ceremony because they failed my "elective" course.

Oh, and I've never raised any arguments for Rio being exempted from testing. But I don't think you would join me in a call that ALL schools submit to testing. If testing is good for some schools, surely it must be good for all schools.

Don't take the arguments so personally, Darren. They are arguments against your positions, not against you.

My point is that consequence-free testing doesn't tell you much. Standardized testing brings no buy-in for test-takers. To then hold other people or bodies accountable for the results of no buy-in, no consequence testing fails the common sense test. Badly.

(And for the record it is you, not me, who is given to calling people "idiots" right here on RotLC. Forgive my failure to see that as establishing an atmosphere of niceness.)

Darren said...

You attacked me personally when you brought up my participation at our recent staff meeting.

I call lots of people idiots; generally, though, I do it here, on my own blog--I don't go to theirs to do it. Acting as a proper guest, and all that.

As for having all schools test, I only expect those schools that get government money to be subject to government tests. Should vouchers be implemented, I'd expect any school that accepted them to be subject to testing.

Here's a thought experiment. If NCLB isn't funded enough to pay for our STAR testing--testing that predates NCLB by several years, I might add--why doesn't California just forego the federal money (last I read, 7% of the ed budget) *and* the STAR testing? We'd apparently be money ahead. Everyone, including the teachers unions, should be happy.

Why do you suppose that doesn't happen? I think it doesn't happen because
a) there is no so-called underfunding,
b) California's own testing regime was implemented in Sacramento by a legislature run by Democrats, and signed by a Democrat governor (there were earlier incarnations, but Davis signed the most recent one), and
c) even those Democrats know that the halcyon days of the 90s were days of fuzzy math, whole language, and a decade of kids who couldn't read the diplomas they "earned".

Testing may not be the cure-all, but it beats what we had in the 90s. What do you think should be done to prevent the recurrence of the situation that created California's STAR testing in the first place?

That's a genuine question, as opposed to a rhetorical one.

Dean Baird said...

A testing regime that actually assessed what students do or do not know is too expensive for taxpayers to support. It could be done, mind you. But it would involve one-on-one interviews with students and extrinsic motivation for students to do well.

And that might cost as much as (and I'm just guessing here) one day of what we spend in Iraq. And at that rate, the taxpaying public that hopes to hold schools accountable--and cites it as the number one priority of state government--really isn't all that interested in the results.

People--especially those not familiar with the nuances of education--want quick and easy fixes for complex problems. Develop a set of standards and assessments and hey; problems solved!

If you want top-notch instruction with top-notch results, it's going to take much, much more than that. It might even require "other" than that.

It's going to take excellent teachers who know the content and how to teach it. And you're going to have to support the instructional curriculum with appropriate resources. That's pricey and difficult. Most people prefer cheap and easy.

Accountability for schools is OK as long as there's accountability for students and parents, too. When that happens, we can hope for results. Laying it all at the feet of teachers is cheap and easy. Spreading out the accountability is politically impossible.

Foregoing the federal money is an option that is always under consideration. I heard that some state (can't remember which) is actually doing it. I'm pretty sure Educational Testing Services (ETS) is on record in opposition to such a bold move.

But I have to call the funding issue a red herring.

Bottom line: testing as it exists now is a poor indicator of what students do or do not know. Yet it is being used for accountability against schools who are forbidden from holding test-takers accountable for their performance.

I'm still waiting for someone to tell me how that makes sense.

Darren said...

A couple states (your favorite Utah being the latest) have considered it but none has bailed out on testing.

Standardized testing isn't designed to test the ceiling of what students know, it's designed to test the floor--to see if they've learned minimums. And in so many schools they haven't.

You're right that tests may not (yet) tell us much about individual students, although with some tweaking they could, but we can get much information from aggregate data. If lots of kids at one school are far below basic, doesn't that tell us something--and isn't a healthy part of that "something" the fact that the students don't know much?

Anonymous said...

If lots of kids at one school are far below basic, doesn't that tell us something--and isn't a healthy part of that "something" the fact that the students don't know much?

So, let's say that a particular school has abysmal scores for their second graders (the first year that kids take the test). Isn't this where the buck should stop? Where significant interventions should occur to prevent snowballing each year? Being behind in the second grade should be so much easier to catch up on than continually being behind year after year. Even if it means retaining many students, at that young age, research has shown that retention doesn't have the stigma that it does with older kids.
As a high school teacher, how can you be expected to go back and teach what these kids did not master when they were supposed to be learning multiplication facts, division, fractions, etc.? How can they be expected to score proficient in algebra with having ever scored proficient in previous years?

Darren said...

When standardized testing becomes a means to an end instead of the end itself, which is often how it's treated, what you suggest will occur.

And no, I can't teach elementary math to algebra students--that's why we have course prerequisites. But the issue isn't just what Darren does, because it's not all about Darren. The issue has to be what the school does, and what the district does, and what the state does.

Those who look at standardized testing solely through the lens of a teacher are *not* looking at the bigger picture.

Dean Baird said...

The data generated by the tests will not be reliable until students have buy-in. Right now, they don't. Students tend to do poorly on tests they have no buy-in for. Raise your hand if this surprises you in any way, shape, or form.

And no, I can't interpret from the results exactly what students don't know. In Massachusetts, top students at selective-admissions public schools enjoy making Christmas tree patterns in the Scantrons or otherwise gaming a system they don't support. (If you "bust" them for obvious pattern-making, they'll generate random-looking wrong answers.) Sometimes very, very bright 16-yr olds make sport of throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery. Should Boston Latin & Ringe be up for program improvement measures... or reconstitution?

Unrelaible, ugly data is OK, because it gives ammo to "reformers" who can use it to claim "The schools are broken! The schools are broken!" "And, if you follow the reform path that *I* endorse, the schools will be fixed." The pro-voucher crowd, for example, lives on this stuff.

States collect standardized test data for one purpose only: to report legislatively mandated Adequate Yearly Progress stats. There is no other purpose. It is not intended to be used to assess individual students. It is not intended to inform teachers on how to modify their curriculum. It's certainly not intended to find weaknesses in content deliver statewide so that teacher inservice training could be focused toward greater content standards mastery. AYP--period.

Darren said...

Your comment contains some kernels of truth, but overall I find it unpersuasive--no matter how passionately you make it.