Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Testing that serves students? Nah

    They're getting it, but they still don't get it.

    States are figuring out that it's not good policy to put so much emphasis on a single standardized test.

    Not only does it result in miscarriages of assessment, even when students get more than one try. It also warps and crimps the learning experience as schools focus on a thunderous drum-roll moment.

    Someone recently shared with me the picture of a child's wrist, red and almost bloody. The child had been gnawing on it as a state standardized test approached. This rat-in-a-cage angst is our creation, and our shame.

    But such pressure-cooker treatment of our children and their teachers is only one concern. A more significant, though barely ever discussed, problem is that the tests themselves hardly ever help identify learning problems when they could make a difference.

     It is sickening how much communal energy we invest in such pitiful diagnostic tools.

     Back during the 2001 debate over No Child Left Behind, Congressman Ted Strickland, D-Ohio,  committed the heresy of one who had looked through the platitudes about high-stakes testing.

     "In my judgment, educational testing should be used diagnostically to determine what learning impediments might exist and prescriptively to determine what methods might be best . . . (it) is not intended to be a measure of accountability or a factor in decisions about how much money a school district wins as a bonus or loses as a sanction." That kind of wisdom went in one collective ear and out the other. Congress signed on to the notion pioneered in George W. Bush's Texas about the end-all significance of standardized high-stakes tests.

      Texas since has wised up a little. This year the legislature took key steps to de-emphasize the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. For one, it jettisoned the high-school exit test in favor of end-of-course exams. For another, it authorized a shift from "gotcha" snapshot moments using TAKS to a "growth model" to measure how students were progressing.

        Last year Colorado lawmakers ordered a revision of state standards, and with it a new state test. Colorado State Board of Education last week said it would pull the plug on the Colorado Student Assessment Program — CSAP — in favor of a new test focused more on critical thinking. This sounds like progress. Or it sounds like new and improved reasons for gnawing on wrists.

         The problem remains that these tests aren't meant to help children. They are meant to catch teachers in the act of not delivering what the state wants. Unlike Congressman Strickland's idea of using assessments to help children, these tests, coming at the consummation of pressurized quests, are simply designed to ding those who don't measure up, student or educator.

         What's the alternative? The alternative is testing that is truly diagnostic: ongoing online assessments. What do I mean? I mean that instead of having everything stop at every school in the spring to test everyone, we design ways that see what children are learning as they learn it, or don't. If the state wants children to learn X or Y, it should have online exercises that, on an ongoing basis, and not just in April or March, ask the pertinent questions, and show children the error of their ways if they don't get them right.

     That way — heresy — instead of slapping the hand that is gnawed, the state would have a tool by which a child is actually learning from an assessment, and the teacher is seeing what the child's weakness is before the Big Test documents it. 

      Wait, you say; that sounds like a recipe for cheating. Well, we need to get beyond the notion that state testing is just for playing sheriff in a village of pre-adults. Testing should be designed to help them, not to ingratiate the man with the badge.

      Don't say we can't do this. Of course we can. This nation spends billions of dollars on standardized tests, toward the filling of bubbles on mountains of sheets of paper. It's just this side of the stone age. It's time to see how the state can facilitate learning and enthusiasm, rather than standing over children and teachers with a whip and a bass drum.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.   

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