It is with apprehension that I venture into the minefield of standardized tests. I can’t line up solidly on one side or the other. I agree with our education establishment (yes, such things are possible) that the tests are overused and misused, and even in the best of circumstances paint only a partial picture of student achievement and school effectiveness. On the other hand, I’m extremely uncomfortable with the notion – expounded daily in a variety of venues – that standardized tests are the soul-killing source of all that is evil and wrong in our public schools.
We’re reminded of the deficiencies of the Manichaean view through an essay in the New York Times by middle school English teacher Claire Needell Hollander, which inspired John Thompson of This Week in Education to conclude, “Even when our bubble-in tests ‘succeed’ and scores are raised, the costs are too high because we fail to teach kids ‘that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.’” But today Paul Bruno of This Week In Education sings the praises of standardized tests. It won’t surprise you to know that Thompson’s post received favorable comments while Bruno’s did not.
I once wrote my own defense of standardized tests so I won’t repeat those arguments here. It’s just that Ms. Hollander’s editorial itself demonstrates that we will get nowhere with the “either one or the other” approach.
Hollander is an education reformer’s dream. She’s teaching Steinbeck, Shakespeare and Salinger to underprivileged middle school students. There’s nothing dumbed-down about her approach or curriculum. She expresses the dismay many teachers feel when, despite her laudable efforts, her students don’t necessarily perform well on English tests:
I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.
As a result, she now spends less time on literature and more time on test-specific short passages. Even the staunchest defender of fundamentals must find this regrettable and wrong.
Where Hollander goes astray is in her solution to her quandary:
Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.
She explains this is necessary because her low-income students “begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers [and] are also less likely to read at home.”
How does she know this? Certainly we know it is true in the aggregate because various government agencies and academic researchers have gathered the data and analyzed the results. Does she have empirical vocabulary and reading comprehension information on her students going back to first grade? Probably not, but if she does, it is due to standardized testing.
There is one other problematic phrase – “let students focus on real learning.” Vocabulary, grammar, fractions and the periodic table are real learning. Both students and teachers in shop class would like to spend their time building chairs and shelves. It’s silly to suggest they should be freed from the dull burden of learning to use saws, hammers and tape measures.
A good teacher is one with a firm grasp of her area of expertise, some skill at passing it along, and the crucial ability to create an environment where learning can take place. The rest is up to the individual student. There are two sentences, separated widely in the column, that lead me to conclude that Ms. Hollander is a good teacher who may overrate her students:
* “When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I.”
* “Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort.”
I’m assuming when Hollander writes, “read the end together out loud” she doesn’t mean en masse but that someone read and the rest listened. Nothing wrong with that, except it’s not reading. Reading is a solitary act, and Hollander states that many of her students won’t do it alone. How do we know they can do it alone? The solution the system has devised, as flawed as it may be, is to give them a test in which they are not allowed to communicate with others, but must read a passage on their own and answer questions about what it means.
Under these circumstances, it’s unfair to view Ms. Hollander as a failure simply because of her students’ scores. She is clearly adding value to their education that is not measured by the test. However, it is unfair of her to blame the test, or the entire system of testing, because her students cannot reliably demonstrate mastery of what it does measure.
One of the immutable laws of punditry is to delineate two extreme positions and then unveil a brilliant Third Way to settle their differences. I don’t have one of those. Getting ready for the next standardized test is not a worthy activity for American students. Getting rid of standardized tests is a surrender to the idea that there are no such things as objective measurements of student learning. I just don’t find either position very tenable.