testpreppencils.jpgNext week is standardized test week in New York. 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders will spend two or three days taking the English Language Arts standardized test (the math test happens in March). Please circle which statements apply to these tests:

A.These tests measure student achievement
B.These tests measure teacher effectiveness.
C.These tests measure a school’s overall performance.
D.These tests measure a principal’s overall effectiveness.
E.School budgets may be influenced by how students perform on the test.
F.A principal may be awarded a bonus by how students in his school perform on the test.
G.Kaplan Test Prep has been awarded more than 73 million dollars in NYC school contracts in the last decade.
H.All of the above.

The correct answer is H – all of the above. Isn’t it amazing that we’ve invented a measuring tool that can do so many things all at once?

Liam will take the third-grade ELA next week. Keep in mind, of course, that the third-grade scores don’t impact the students other than as predictors of how third-graders might (might) fare on the fourth-grade test. The third-grade scores are used by the school to help measure “effectiveness.” (But what does “effective” mean? If you’re a teacher and your class scores well, does that mean you’re a good teacher or that you’ve got a bunch of smarties in your class? Conversely, if your class does poorly does that mean you’re a bad teacher? Isn’t it more likely that the scores have to do with the alchemical combination of your teaching and the personalities of your students?)

Liam will spend two days next week answering multiple-choice reading comprehension questions. If the practice booklet is any guide, many of these questions are so badly written that even I can’t quite figure out the right answer.  For instance, if you had to distinguish between “explaining” something and “describing” something, could you articulate precisely what the difference is between doing those two things? Would you expect a third-grader to know the difference?

These tests – and the industry that has grown up around test administration (including test prep) – are big business. If I were investing in anything right now, I’d be investing in testing companies. Millions and millions of dollars have been generated for companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review; millions and millions of dollars have been spent in NYC in order to gather the information generated by the tests and then to use that information to generate the incredibly unhelpful school report cards (there is a link on this page to the city-wide report card, in an excel spreadsheet). Let me know if you can deduce any useful information from these scores, other than that some schools scored higher and others scored lower. And while we’re at it, let’s look at this article, which suggests that higher-achieving kids are being short-changed in an effort to focus on increasing basic competencies.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for basic competency. I’m just not sure that standardized tests are a way to get us there. I’ve taught too many college kids who have respectable SAT scores, but who cannot write a coherent sentence, read an entire novel, or even compute their own GPA. The test, in other words, doesn’t measure competency: it measures the kid’s ability to take the test. (Read this article for a grim account of a Kaplan test coach’s stint in the NYC public high schools…)

Malcom Gladwell, in a recent New Yorker article, talked about the difficulty of assessing teacher effectiveness, which is ostensibly one of the things measured by these standardized tests. But one of the reasons why it is difficult to measure teacher effectiveness is precisely because learning doesn’t happen on a standardized chart: people learn in hops and skips, circles and loops, moving backwards, stalling, and then bounding forwards. We’ve all watched kids learn to read (or remember ourselves that moment when the words unlocked on the page) – they mutter and mutter and hurl the book across the room and then one day, BAM!, they’re laughing to themselves about green eggs and ham.

Nevertheless, Liam has to take the tests. Do I tell him it’s no big deal, that it doesn’t matter? I don’t want to say that because next year, the test will matter. In a piece of DOE cleverness, the scores on the fourth-grade tests are the scores used on entrance applications for sixth-grade. Yes, that’s true. A test your kid takes in January of fourth grade will be used one year later to determine where she should go to school the following year (which is to say, almost two years after taking the test).  

But even if I were to tell Liam that his parents don’t think tests like this accurately measure what he’s learning, the teachers and administrators send the message that the tests are important, while at the same time trying to reassure the kids about this standardized sword dangling over their heads. Practice tests became the bulk of the homework about a month ago; all the students made “stress balls” in order to alleviate anxiety (Liam asked me if he was supposed to be nervous); and even the third-graders are taught relaxation skills in order to alleviate the stress produced by tests that are essentially, practice. Fourth and fifth graders are given (free of charge other than to taxpayers) Kaplan test-practice workbooks, although no one is really sure why fifth-graders take the test, other than as further fodder for the school’s overall profile: low test scores can result in schools being closed, and high-performing schools can get money if they take in kids from low-performing schools.

Liam’s school does seem to be sending a mixed message, but what else can they do? The reality is that the tests matter, if only for budgetary reasons; but at the same time, the tests (taking them and preparing for them) take away from what all the teachers consider “real” teaching time. For that matter, what message are we, as a society, sending to our kids by promoting these tests: do we really want our kids to think that the only thing that matters is “what’s going to be on the test”?

We live in a society in which the lack of accountability on Wall Street and in the real estate markets has driven us to the brink of financial collapse; a society that looked the other way while the Bush administration routinely tampered with public documents (and the public trust) in order to further its own agenda and line its own pockets. (See the most recent issue of Vanity Fair  for an infuriating explanation – description? – of how the Bush administration dodged accountability).

Does anyone else see the irony in our least accountable president insisting on accountability in the schools?

How can anyone think that these tests will somehow “account” for what happens in the classroom? Can a series of tests solve the problems caused by overcrowding, under-budgeting, and bad planning? Can we really quantify “learning” the way we can count widgets on an assembly line? Can we measure knowledge like flour: thanks, I only need a half-cup of math today?

If only it were that easy. If on
ly our public education system could be fixed with a number two pencil and a scan-tron sheet.

Imaginations can’t be standardized – and to fix the system, we’re going to need precisely the kind of creative thinking that can’t be measured by the ELA, SAT, ACT, or any other acronymed booklet.