Misuse of Standardized Tests

Students taking a test.By definition, standardized tests are administered and scored under clearly defined, uniform conditions. Most are commercially prepared for nationwide use, and they provide information about performance relative to others of the same age or grade.

To understand how standardized tests and their scores can be misused, it is critical to understand a little about the construction of such assessments. First of all, it’s important to note that in addition to providing a point of comparison, standardized assessments are designed to discriminate among students, which means there must be a spread of scores.

There are two kinds of questions that can ensure ‘spread’ exists. One is to design questions that are heavily influenced by socio-economic factors. (After all, socio-economic status is a nicely spread out distribution.) Students from middle class or upper class status are likely to do better on these types of questions because they are more likely to have encountered the content outside of school. (Yes, you read correctly, test items on standardized tests do not necessarily assess content taught in schools.)

The second type of question that can help ensure ‘spread’ exists are those that assess inherited academic aptitudes. If you are thinking to yourself, this is another example of testing something that is not necessarily supposed to be learned in school, you are right. In fact, some studies suggest that as much as 75 percent of the content assessed on standardized tests is not even supposed to be covered as a part of the school curriculum.

Finally, if you want substantial spread among the scores, items on the test will need to be answered incorrectly by about 50% of the test-takers. That’s right, you need about half of the students to miss questions so differences can be noted between and among students. It would seem obvious then, that questions which are designed to measure what I’ll refer to as ‘mainstream’ content are likely to be absent on such tests.

Now that you have a little better understanding of the role and construction of standardized tests, it should be obvious that such assessments should not be used to measure the effectiveness of a classroom teacher. After all, by design most of the questions on such test are not even designed to test content commonly taught in the classroom. Too many students would answer such question correctly, sabotaging the need for a spread of scores.

Commercially constructed standardized tests also have limited value as a formative assessment. It would be ludicrous to expect a test that measures very little of the content commonly covered at a grade level, to provide meaningful data to classroom teachers about mastery of the content.

Finally, when you consider that most of what such tests measure are inherent abilities, and experiences that students have outside of school, it should be obvious that they also have very little utility in measuring the quality of a given school. In reality if you want to judge the quality of instruction, a test should be designed to measure how well children were taught, not whether they’ve been fortunate enough to have rich life experiences outside of school.

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College and Career Ready–Are they the same thing?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the dismal job we are doing when it comes to helping kids define and prepare for their path in life. It seems obvious to me that others are noting this too. After all, the first goal in the “Blueprint for Reform” is to ensure that all kids leave high school “College and Career Ready.”

However, everything I read leads me to conclude that there is a belief that what prepares you for one prepares you for both, and I’m just not convinced this is true. I am willing to concede there are commonalities. For example, both (college and the workplace) require high levels of communication skills (reading-writing-speaking), as well as the ability to understand and work with numbers. Both also require the ability to reason and make decisions etc. (There are obviously others but you get the point.)

However, while I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, I would argue that a College-Prep Curriculum prepares you for just that–College. More specifically, I would suggest that a College-Prep Curriculum is designed to prepare students for a 4-year university, not just any post-secondary learning option, and such curricula certainly is NOT designed around the needs of the workplace. Even the structure of such classes mimics college courses, not activities in a workplace.

Although learning irrelevant information is not necessarily harmful, it just isn’t all that helpful for students who don’t need a degree from a 4-year university to fulfill their career goals. As evidence to the irrelevant nature of some of the curricula, I would invite you to consider the works of Shakespeare or the ability to compute polynomial products. Most workplaces do not require their workers to know or do anything with these pieces of knowledge yet both are common in college-prep curricula.

If you need further evidence of the difference between the needs of the two environments, consider the fact that college-preparatory mathematics courses in “experimental,” “integrated,” “technical,” or “unified” curricula are not always recognized by admissions counselors in the post-secondary world. Yet, these are the very kinds of courses that employers are demanding.

I’m not advocating that one is better than the other, rather I’m suggesting that Career and College Ready are not the same things. One is not better or harder. They are just different.

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Thoughts about iPads and Learning

We have a full house in the office today. In fact, over 120 educators have convened here to collaborate around the topic of using iPads in the classroom. Obviously much of what is being discussed applies to other digital mobile devices too.

I must admit, I’m a skeptic by nature. I rarely get excited by the ‘cool’ factor of new ‘glitzy’ toys. Those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m usually not excited about a new piece of technology until I see how it can do one of two things–Either allow me to operate more efficiently or make it possible to do things that weren’t possible before.

I’m not a Luddite. Really I’m not. I get the potential for technology to enhance if not transform teaching and learning. I’d have to be blind not to recognize how ubiquitous technology is in the world. I know it’s here to stay, and there’s no doubt technology has been and will continue to transform all aspects of our world.

But when I think about how we’ve embraced technology in education, I have to wonder about the cost to benefit ratio. Too many examples of technology being used to ‘automate the past’ exist. The potential of many devices have been neutered by overzealous filtering and security lockdowns on the network.

So as I think about the introduction of technology such iPads in the classroom, I automatically ask, “Why? What is the anticipated impact? ” To be clear, I’m not asking for a metric to focus on equipment itself. In reality, the iPad is akin to pencil and paper. It is merely a tool not curriculum. I’m interested in knowing what has happened as a result of introducing iPads (or other similar digital devices). In other words……

**How has student learning been impacted?
**Are students more ‘engaged’ with learning?
**What are students doing now that they weren’t doing before?
**Are students demonstrating higher levels of understanding?
**Are students using the tools to do things that weren’t possible prior to the introduction of the resource?
**In what ways have instructional practices changed?

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What do students really need to learn?

With the announcement that states can submit waiver requests, it would appear that the No Child Left Behind legislation is for all intents and purposes coming to an end a year early. Most educators are NOT sad about this. In fact, they are relieved. It’s not that educators are opposed to accountability and certainly most aren’t opposed to high standards, but the idea that 100% of students will reach an arbitrary (yes, I really mean arbitrary) score on the same day flies in the face of efforts to differentiate instructional practices based on the needs of the learner.

First let me defend my use of the word, ‘arbitrary.’ I’m not suggesting that the ‘powers that be’ grabbed a random number and decided this was the target score that every student should achieve. I recognize that a lot more thought went into deciding what the ‘cut’ score should be–(i.e. the minimum score every student would be expected to achieve.) However, I am suggesting that the ‘cut’ scores varied greatly from one state to the next as did the content being measured etc. In my mind, the variation between the knowledge students were expected to master coupled with the variation in acceptable scores from one state to the next points to a somewhat random and arbitrary determination.

This brings me to the question at hand…. “What do ALL students really need to learn and be able to do IF they are going to graduate from our K-12 schools and become productive members of society?” I want to emphasize the word ALL in this question, because I believe we REQUIRE kids to do many things that may not support their individual path in life. Oh sure, ‘those things’ may be important for another student, but does it make sense to ‘standardize’ learning to the point that all students are expected to complete the same requirements even though elements of it don’t meet their needs?

OK… I’m sure you’re ready for me to tell you at this point what I believe all kids MUST know and be able to do. As much as I hate to disappoint you, the purpose of this post was not to define the minimum ‘curriculum’ but rather to draw attention to the need for us to work together and redefine it. I would suggest that high stakes tests should measure what we really believe ALL kids must know and be able to do. I would also suggest if these tests really measure important knowledge and skills, successful adults should be able to pass them.

States across the country are preparing their waiver requests from elements in the NCLB legislation. Many have adopted Common Core Standards and most of those have joined one of the consortiums charged with writing assessments to measure the standards. I’m just wondering if we’ll get closer to getting it right. It seems we should measure the outcome which we desire, and I’m wondering if we are committed to preparing kids for success in their life or to take assessments that measure content knowledge?

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The successful graduate

What qualities lead to success in life? Is it high scores on standardized tests? Perhaps it is the ability to earn straight A’s in school. Or perhaps it is linked to a high IQ. Obviously, there are a host of interrelated factors that play into the success of any single individual. However, after considering a handful of highly successful individuals, I’d propose the following qualities as important:

**Goal Oriented
**Gumption (spirited initiative and resourcefulness)
**Adaptable
**Problem Solving
**Accountability

As shared in a “Number 1 Predictor of College Success”, one of the greatest predictors of success in college is having a goal or end in mind. After all, if you are just wandering aimlessly, when the going gets tough, it makes a lot more sense to retreat. If, on the other hand, you are clear about what you want to accomplish and if your goal is important to you, when the going gets tough, you are much more likely to choose to ‘get tougher.’

When I review the life stories of highly successful people, I find that most have experienced disappointments along the way, and many of them flat-out had failure after failure. Consider Henry Ford whose early business ventures left him broke five times before he successfully launched Ford Motor Company. Or how about Walt Disney who was fired by a newspaper editor because, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Then there was Thomas Edison who was not only told by teachers he was “too stupid to learn anything,” he was fired by two employers and had 1,000 failed attempts at inventing the lightbulb. What do these people have in common? I’d suggest, they had gumption, the ability and drive to pick themselves up, learn from their experiences and push ahead in spite of adversity.

As for adaptability, most people agree, we are in the greatest period of rapid change at any point in history. To fail to recognize the value of adaptability would be akin to suggesting the Pope’s not Catholic.

Regardless of the role at hand, we are all called upon to make decisions and solve problems. Some are complex, others not so much. Some problems have high stakes outcomes and many moving parts such as how to combat poverty, while others such as whether to have grape jelly or honey with my peanut butter sandwich are less critical. The point is, successful people have the ability to consider the pertinent factors, imagine options, evaluate potential outcomes, and then decide on the most prudent course of action. (This in no way suggest that every decision will be a home run.)

Highly successful people are also willing to take responsibility and be held accountable. They are not victims of their circumstances, rather than are the creators of their circumstances. When they get it wrong, they accept the responsibility, learn from the mistake and move on.

If you agree that above qualities are important and maybe even predictive of success in life, I have to ask. How are they being nurtured, and measured in schools?

Posted in School Reform, Success in School, Testing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Number 1 Predictor of Post-Secondary Success

We’ve all read the statistics….

—At least one in three, 4-year college graduates will end up taking a job they could have gotten right out of high school.
—Approximately 70% of high school graduates will seek a 4-year degree even though only about 23% of the employment actually requires this level of education.
—2/3 of all college students drop-out at least once and 91% of this group never actually finish a degree

So why such dismal results and how can we improve the retention and eventual completion of a certification or degree? Some will propose that success can be predicted upon things like:
—ability to read 200 or more pages a week
—high ACT scores
—accomplished note-taker etc.

I would propose that while those may all be desirable traits, in and of themselves, they are not enough. The real key in my mind boils down to “knowing why you are there.” It’s that simple. Too many students enroll in post-secondary schools with no real, goal, plan or purpose. They aren’t clear or committed to an end result. They don’t know what they want to do with their life and therefore, they really have no reason for being there. Some will finish degrees that don’t lead to any career opportunities and others will drop out.

When a person becomes clear about what they trying to accomplish, and they fully commit to making it happen, they are more likely to engage in behaviors that will lead to their success. They will:
–enroll in courses that lead to an end result.
–develop systems for success
–dig deep and find solutions for challenges that come their way
–will ask for help and serve as a self-advocate.

In short, students with a clear goal will do whatever it takes to realize the desired end-result.

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Are teachers becoming irrelevant?

I’ve never worked in a factory, but I suspect that there was a day when factory workers could never imagine being replaced by robots. I doubt that bank tellers imagined the day when their job could be done by ATM’s. In larger cities, it is no longer necessary for a police officer to pull you over and ticket you for running a red light or speeding. Have you noticed that trains no longer have a caboose? My point is that technology is changing the face of the workforce.

There was a day when teachers were ‘purveyors of knowledge.’ Their value was not only in the ‘art of teaching’ but also in the knowledge they brought and imparted to their students. However, teachers no longer have the market on ‘information.’ It is everywhere and available 24/7.

Unfortunately, I fear that many teachers continue to be ‘givers of information’ rather than facilitators of student learning. In my mind, ‘Givers of information’ are already obsolete. Computers can not only deliver information, they can much more efficiently assess and re-teach isolated pieces of knowledge when necessary. In fact, I would suggest that computers do a much better job than most teachers at using formative assessments for instructional purposes.

So if teachers no longer have the market where knowledge is concerned, I find myself asking, “what is the value-added element that a human brings to the learning process?”

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