In Defense of Bubbles

Because education is such an important issue, Americans inevitably will have clear differences on how to approach it. But the worst part of the involvement of politics in education is that certain statements are established as boundary lines and people then feel compelled to join their friends and allies on one side of the line and stare down their opponents on the other.

We are so caught up in the battle for turf that we have stopped examining the boundary line itself.

Every one of the eight presidential candidates to address the National Education Association Representative Assembly made a derogatory reference to standardized tests. At least five – possibly more – railed at “fill in the bubble” tests instead of more comprehensive assessments.

There is no question about it. A “fill-in-the-bubble” test is an insufficient method of assessing a student’s knowledge and skills. But to whose advantage is that? One would think that the Educational Testing Service alone benefits from standardized tests.

NEA and the presidential candidates assume that alternative forms of assessment would demonstrate students, teachers and schools are performing better than standardized tests would indicate. That assumption is a statement of faith and not of empiricism.

Any question on a fill-in-the-bubble test provides all the data necessary to come up with the correct answer. Students are then supplied with four or five possible responses. By their very nature, standardized tests inflate the scores of students on the low end of the scale. The only students who score lower than 20 percent on a fill-in-the-bubble test are victims of bad luck, since entirely random responses should raise you at least that high.

Just the appearance of a correct answer printed on a test booklet should increase scores across-the-board. Some percentage of students who cannot correctly answer the question “Who was President of the United States during the Civil War?” with no further prompting, will no doubt choose the correct answer when it is placed next to George Washington, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton. There is good reason to believe that scores would plummet if tests were “fill in the blank” instead of “fill in the bubble.”

Student assessments can also include essays, projects, or oral interviews. These allow students to demonstrate a deeper and wider knowledge of a particular subject than can be measured by a “fill in the bubble” test. However, using the previous example, it’s hard to imagine a student who can write a meaningful and exemplary essay about any aspect of the Civil War if he or she can’t answer the “bubble” question of who the President was.

So why would educators and their political allies criticize measurements that cast them in a better light than the alternatives? It seems silly to put it this way, but it’s because standardized tests are standardized. A machine checks the answers. The correct answer in Utah is the correct answer in Alabama. Not much interpretation is needed for parents, journalists and the public. There is little avenue to appeal to subjectivity.

All alternative assessments require an evaluator. Evaluators are not, and cannot be, standardized. They may be influenced, properly or improperly, by whether they taught the student, the student’s performance on previous tests, the student’s background and circumstances, the evaluator’s view of the curriculum, the test, and the specific question being asked, and hundreds of other factors.

Because of the political battles over education and the presence of standardized tests, the tendency of school systems is to evaluate students more generously in alternative assessments. In the absence of standardized tests, very few students “fail,” receive Fs, are retained, or are denied diplomas.

There has to be a way to reconcile those who demand a specific cut score without any reference to a student’s progress and those who are satisfied with “seeing the light in Johnny’s eyes,” even if Johnny still can’t read. Demonizing bubble tests makes for a nice sound bite, but it moves us no closer to answering the eternal question, “How are our students doing?”


4 thoughts on “In Defense of Bubbles”

  1. A combination of “objective” (or “bubble”) assessment PLUS other teacher-and student-directed “authentic” assessments give the best measure of a student’s progress.

    You’re right in that the bubble tests ARE easier than other assessments. BUT– What many of us who work directly with students realize is that many if not most do not take standardized tests seriously unless they are required for passing from grade to grade of to graduate.

    The problem is, if they ARE required for these things, they are often ALL that is absolutely required. Why can they not be part of an average? We don’t give students just one or one type opf assessment to get credit for (to “pass”) a course, so why deny promotion or graduation on the basis of ONE test. That’s what most of us have problems with.

    Actually, the major problem no one wants to face is that only at the high school level are students actually required to pass required subjects to progress from grade to grade. I have had 9th grade students in a 9th grade English class who have not earned a passing grade in English (or possibly any other class) for YEARS and yet are ending up in 9th grade! Of course, their “self esteem” (the major focus of middle school philosophy) is in GREAT shape.

    Get rid of middle schools. Go K-8 or K-5 and then junior high!

  2. The value of assessments lies in their appearance of accountability.

    If you’ve never, in your entire professional life, had to produce an objectively measurable result then the prospect of having to do so is pretty scary. Of course there’d be strong resistance to the introduction of objective measures, it’s just common sense and self-preservation. That opponents of NCLB may be sincere in their beliefs about objective measures is neither here nor there. The only thing that ought to matter is the validity of the criticism and anywhere outside public education the notion that opinion is an acceptable substitute for an objective measure of performance will get you a horse-laugh.

    That’s the problem that supporters of the current public education regime face, that there’s a rising tide of demand for objective measures of performance so that accountability becomes possible. How to provide some measure which is easily manipulable so as to satisfy the demand for accountability without, in fact, being accountable. Assessments provide that appearence of measurment without its substance.

  3. The comments about fill-in-the-bubble tests are valid, but they don’t tell the whole story. Colorado and, I suspect, other states, have very few multiple choice questions on the CSAP. Most are “constructed response” (short answer) and there are essay requirements. So it’s not a computer scanning an answer sheet to see how much a kid knows. It’s an anonymous group of housewives, college students, retired teachers, and whoever the test publisher can hire to “grade” these answers on a rubric… and everyone knows exactly how subjective rubrics can be. Add that truth to the truths that some kids do poorly on any standardized test, and some kids (like the rest of us) can screw up on any given day for a multitude of reasons, and you get a better indication of why these tests are not a very accurate predictor of academic achievement.

  4. I agree that combination tests are better. I’ve always been good at bubble tests, but I can’t fake my way through an essay on a topic about which I know nothing.

    I’ve seen “writing” tests that were entirely ABCD, which entailed no writing at all, simply for the ease of grading. And I’ve also seen kids who couldn’t write passing these tests.

    As an ESL teacher, I really, really think there needs to be listening and speaking on tests. I regularly get kids who’ve studied grammar till they’re blue in the face, who pass tests but can’t function in the language. I will not pass a kid who cannot speak to an intermediate level, and that freaks them out sometimes. It’s unheard of in Asia.

    But what good is a language if you can’t even speak?

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