besting the testing without over-investing
developing a practical and powerful perspective on the most divisive issue we face in education toda
by steve peha
As another school year begins, and I survey my clients around the country with regard to testing, the results are pretty much the same as they were last year: teachers and students are down in the dumps, parents and pols are up in arms. Only one thing seems certain: if you have a pulse, you have an opinion about testing in schools. And while the discussion seems desultory if not daunting, at least people are talking about results, a subject we seem to have studied cursorily at best — and responded to only once, really, when we found ourselves Sputniked into the Space Race and, in a typically paranoiac response, decided that teaching a little more math and science would make us all sleep better at night.
For the first time in the history of our republic, we are engaged in a substantive national dialog about the quality of teaching and learning; education matters from sea to whining sea. And while it’s certainly too early to know for sure, there is evidence in the data that some schools are making some gains, at least at the elementary level. Middle and high schools seem to be making less progress but there are glimmers here and there, too. What we don't know yet is whether these gains represent real learning or if they’re just the result of test familiarity due to increased test preparation. Only more time — and more testing — will tell.
Don’t Fight It, Invite It
Testing has been a part of our education system since the early 1900s. It's just part of school. So I say don't fight it, invite it. The best way to challenge the testing system is to beat it. Most of the schools I work with pick up 20-40 points on their scores over two to three years. If every kid gets the same high score, the test becomes less important and the testing system less necessary.
If everyone works together, and we do what makes sense, it's not hard to raise scores. My hope is that once scores get high enough — up into the 80s and 90s — we really won't need so much testing. At that point, we could, for example, use statistical sampling and test only one out of every 20 kids, (at fewer grade levels and subjects, too) thus reducing the national testing budget by billions of dollars each year, dollars that could be put into training to help teachers teach more effectively. But at the moment, millions of kids really aren't doing as well as they could, and testing is the only approach our education system is familiar with. It might be another generation or two before our country warms up to more effective, more efficient, and less costly approaches to assessing the quality of teaching and learning.
A Matter of Give and Take
The other thing I try to keep in mind is that the tests themselves are not the issue, we are. It matters less which tests we give, much more how we choose to take them. If teachers teach to the tests and not to their students, this is a problem. If schools deny educational opportunities to kids on the basis of test scores, this is a problem. If parents impose reward-punishment systems on their children based on test scores, this is a problem. If politicians use test scores to make social policy, this is a problem. If we all promote feelings of anxiety and animosity around testing to our peers and to our students, this is a huge problem because it unhinges our good judgment and undermines our collective effectiveness.
Whenever I feel myself getting upset about testing, I try to take the accountable position: I'm a part of the system, too. I have a responsibility to act, in a constructive way, on behalf of the students and teachers I serve. It doesn't help anyone — especially myself — if I just sit back and complain about things.
Don’t Blame It on the Rain
Personally, I do not oppose testing. To me, that's sort of like opposing the weather. I live in Seattle; it's always cloudy. Does that mean I spend every day pining for the sun? We've always had tests and we always will; testing is just part of our culture. The powers that be certainly have the right to impose testing (after all, we elected them), and those of us who choose to participate in the system really do need to go along and administer the tests to our students. Kids need to take the tests and do their best on them; parents need to send their kids to school to be tested or pay to send their kids to private schools; states need to report results and pay for the testing systems; schools need to analyze those results, draw reasonable conclusions from them, and take responsible, appropriate action to make improvements. Everyone must participate fully. You don't go back to bed in the morning just because it looks a little cloudy, right?
Though I am troubled at times by the current climate, I remain optimistic that its positive aspects will endure long after the negatives have been discovered and discarded. And there are some positive aspects. After all, we are at least attempting to look at the connection between quality teaching and quality learning. We may not be looking at it as accurately as I would like, but we are looking nonetheless. For once it really does matter how well someone teaches and how much their students learn. Only good can come of this kind of shift in our attitudes. I also think there will be important changes in administrative and teacher professionalism as well because the drive for better results will force educators to adopt more professional attitudes and use some of the same approaches to quality and performance that have long been used in the business world.
Raise Scores, Raise Expectations, Raise Awareness
As an education consultant, I try to do three things to help my clients with testing. First of all, I develop highly effective test preparation workshops and materials. These resources help kids get higher scores regardless of their ability levels. (All standardized tests have weaknesses and, in general, the newer a test is, the more those weaknesses can be exploited.) If I can help a school raise its scores by 10 or 20 points with just a couple weeks of test prep, teachers can have the rest of the year to make real improvements in the quality of their teaching. My goal with test preparation is simply to help teachers take off some of the pressure. Nobody does their best work under constant pressure.
The second thing I concentrate on is raising expectations for both teacher and student performance. Sadly, we are a nation of chronic under performers. But it isn’t for lack of trying. Teachers put in long hours struggling with large classes and little support for effective practice; kids just hang in as best they can hoping for a break in the same old same old. And the same old same old is just what we get: bad teaching that leads to bad learning. For my part, I concentrate on providing focused, high quality training that gets immediate results, dramatic results that change attitudes about how teachers can teach and what students can learn. After all, how can we expect to educate 21st century students with 19th century approaches? When attitudes change in the face of measurable improvement, expectations rise all around, and schools sustain long term gains.
The third thing I try to do is explain to people how the tests are created, how they're scored, how the results are used, what they really measure, etc. I feel that the best way to change the testing system for the better is simply to tell people about how it works and then let them decide for themselves whether it's any good. I have great faith in human nature. I think most of the negative impressions people have about schools result simply from a lack of complete and accurate information.
Dollars and Sense
Most people don't like tests; that's normal. Teachers, in general, oppose testing for their own certification. I don't see administrators and school board members lining up to take tests for their jobs. Parents would surely oppose testing for the right to bear and raise children (as would any sane person). Business leaders and politicians would oppose testing themselves, seeking instead more authentic measures of ability like profits or votes. (I suspect that the only people who truly like tests are the ones who gain advantage by giving them.) Eventually, I think we will all come to see that there are better ways of making improvements in our education system than widespread testing. Until then, testing is something we clearly have to go through.
By the year 2010 — or even sooner perhaps — I think our testing system will be in the throes of yet another great change because the current approach will be shown to have limited value relative to its cost. Knowing that one child got a 45 while another got a 54 doesn't give a teacher the specific information she needs to help either of them improve. Knowing that a school's reading scores went down by 4% or up by 9% over a three-year period provides only the vaguest notion of what might be going on in classrooms and how that might be changed for the better. It's not that this kind of data isn't helpful, it's that it isn't helpful enough. A different kind of assessment is required, one that supplies us with more direct and more practical information about students and teachers than the reductive, inauthentic standardized approaches of the past.
The best evaluation I have heard is that our current approach to testing is neither bad nor good, it simply costs more than it's worth. Everyone knows that the best way to improve learning is to improve teaching. And the best way to do that is to provide teachers with high quality training and the support they need to put that training into practice in their classrooms. Every dollar spent to test a child is a dollar lost for teaching a child. Fortunately, Americans are very sensitive to this kind of bang-for-the-buck analysis. I like to think of it as a simple “dollars and sense” argument: it just doesn't make sense to spend dollars on testing when we could be spending dollars on teaching and learning.
Steve Peha is the Founder of Teaching That Makes Sense (www.ttms.org), an education consulting organization specializing in literacy, strategy, and technology within the K-12 sector. He lives in Carrboro, NC with his wife Margot Lester, the most incredibly fantastic, amazingly wonderful, and supremely superlative human being he has ever known -- and their two dogs, Mookie and Marvin.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
1.18.04 @ 11:58p
Oh, my friend...we need to talk. I'm particularly intrigued by many of the "ifs" in your fifth paragraph here - ifs that, for all intents and purposes are not possibilities, but are unfortunately facts. Schools DO deny educational opportunities to kids based on test scores - and the fact that we're now disaggregating the data ensures that we will continue to do so. Politicians DO make policy based on those test results - why else would we have NCLB if that were not the case? Teachers (and certainly some parents) DO pass their own anxiety on to their children, because it's been made plain to us that everything rides on those scores.
I'm also concerned about something you didn't mention, but must be aware of - how do you measure AYP in a continually changing student body?
And my last comment (for now, anyway) - test scores measure nothing but a student's ability to take a test; I have seen no evidence (and believe me, I have looked) that standardized test scores bears any relation to actual learning achieved.
1.19.04 @ 12:21a
I would add to that fifth paragraph, and again striking the 'if' as Juli suggests: states also make accreditation and funding priorities on the basis of test scores; again, a hollow measure being used to assess need (or lack thereof).
1.19.04 @ 12:45a
Another thing (OK, so that WASN'T actually my last comment): How do we reckon accountability into this? From everything I've gathered on this issue, and Russ says the same thing above, test scores are closely tied to finances. How do we encourage success when we're throwing more resources and more opportunities at failure?
1.19.04 @ 12:54a
Steve, isn't what you're doing considered an offshoot of outcome-based education? That is, you have a particular goal you're trying to reach (a 20-40 point average increase in point scores) and so adjust teaching methods (at least in the short term) to focus on beating the thing... It's a double-edged sword: the test scores may go up, but at what cost? Do the schools really have the children's best interests at heart when they're trying to improve their standings? If they're devoting some portion of the school year to "beating the system" instead of learning legitimate subjects, then they've just been handicapped.
1.19.04 @ 12:58a
I'm not opposed to outcome-based education -- I'm opposed to the outcome we're striving for. If the desired outcome was a well-rounded education, with a broad knowledge base and students who were capable of critical thinking, I'd be behind outcome-based education 110%.
I don't believe that's the case though. I believe we have an educational system with one primary goal: cover your ass.
1.19.04 @ 6:51a
I have 2 kids still in Elementary school. Each year they have end of grade tests, presumably to assess whether they are ready to be promoted to the next grade level. Considering the fact that they spend some portion of every week at school working in what is called "Blast Off" workbooks, it's hard for them not to pass. These workbooks are designed specifically to prep them for the EOG exams. How is that not padding the odds? The catch to this whole thing is that the books are paid for by parents and the students may not use them or be taught from them until all families have forked over their $10. My 4th grader has yet to be allowed to use hers as some of the parents either can't or won't pay for them.
1.19.04 @ 8:59a
So they're denying every child the ability to succeed on the test because a few children don't have the books? That sucks. You'd think the teacher would at least be able to lift some lessons out of the books and teach them that way.
It seems to me that the problem with testing in schools right now is that the tests are constructed so that they have only a tenuous connection to what the children are studying. Judging from what you all have been saying, they are not seen as developing naturally out of the classroom, but as some entity outside of the classroom that requires a whole different kind of schooling. I can't see how that kind of fractured approach can help.
1.19.04 @ 9:11a
Hey Folks! Thanks for the terrific feedback. It really made my first time memorable.
You've all made some good points about the shortcomings of testing -- all of which I share. As the wealth of commentary here suggests, it's a comlex issue to be sure.
Thoughtful discussion really sharpens my game, so if you want to talk to me about anything in depth, please drop me an e-mail. Also, check out my next post on the role of the media in ed reform as it touches on a variety of related issues.
1.19.04 @ 10:33a
Sarah - you are entirely correct. The standardized tests are (theoretically) geared to measure general knowledge appropriate for the grade level. For example, it is assumed that fourth-graders should be able to do multiplication, so on a fourth-grade test, that will be addressed. However - in a particular fourth-grade classroom, the emphasis for the year may be on literacy skills, with mathematics being given short shrift. Knowing that multiplication is an issue on the test, a teacher may choose to "slam" a unit of multiplication to ensure that the students pass.
There's something called "tracking" that would be appropriate if we're going to give kids standardized tests. Tracking basically ensures that every child at a certain grade level is learning the same stuff. As it stands now, many school districts do not track, so in one school three different fourth-grade classrooms may be learning three different things. If we're going to TEST all kids on the same material, oughtn't we be TEACHING them the same material??
1.19.04 @ 12:53p
here's the thing, y'all. steve's model (and others like his) are actually focussed on teaching kids not to take tests, but to (wait for it) THINK and LEARN. and here's the cool part: you teach kids to THINK then (crash of cymbals) they tend to test better, thus raising scores! so we achieve the outcome most of us truly want (kids who think and learn) plus the outcome the people with money and accreditation rights want (better test scores).
1.19.04 @ 1:00p
An idea I can completely get behind. Now, how do we go about implementing this while we're struggling with NCLB, which seems to insist that test scores are the be-all and end-all of education?