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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Testing School Testing

Susan Engel, a professor of education and psychology at Williams College, published an op-ed in the NY Times today calling for, to coin a phrase, data driven testing.

While I like her points about the narrow "read" of standardized tests on student's abilities, and agree that better measures of students' abilities and teachers' effectiveness could be used, I have three problems with her solution.

Professor Engel is realistic about this, in an offhanded way. She scolds the reading public for accepting "expediency" as the reason for sticking with the current tests. She calls them easy to administer, which would mean that they're also cheaper than less easy alternatives. (Probably - except that testing companies are for-profit enterprises, and the schools have been their captives, especially since NCLB.)

In the current slashing and burning of school funding, I think the case for more expensive tests will be laughed out of the court of public opinion, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors.

When I was teaching, I remember being scolded about how I just didn't understand parents' concerns, and that standardized testing was a way to be fair to parents and allow them to correct problems in their children's education. I've seen it used as a bludgeon by the state, and by other sources of funding dependent on test scores, but not as a tool by parents. 

The testing methods Professor Engel proposes sound great to me, as a former teacher, but nearly impossible to score equitably across states, districts in a state, or even schools in a district.

With so much currently tied into score comparisons (teacher promotion and retention, school restructuring, to-the-top racing), there's little realistic expectation that the standardized test will go the way of the carbon-dated.

3-range of skills testable in multiple-choice
Professor Engel makes one more assertion I'd challenge. I could enumerate more problems with standardized, multiple-choice testing than she does in her piece, because that's not her point. However, it is possibly to test higher-level cognitive functions than simple memorization.

The way she puts it, "students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year," but I used to work in assessment, and I am pretty sure we managed to design assessments of other cognitive functions than memory.

By allowing students one correct choice, two viable distractors, and one clearly wrong choice, and by asking students to do more than remember the year of the Gettysburg Address, it is possible to access their judgment, understanding, analytical skills, even a portion of their creativity, in tests that - to repeat the professor's accusation - are expedient.

I don't think that describes most tests public school students take for their states, and I don't like them to come only at the end of the year, so I'm hardly an advocate of the status quo in testing. (In fact, I used to work for a very good little company that sold formative testing services - helping teachers track student achievement throughout the year - until it was swallowed up by one of the big five, no - four, wait - now it's three major educational publishers in the US.)

I think I will talk about these "alternative" - maybe the term I'm looking for is "better" - tests with my kids' principal. I bet the good teachers are already doing things like this in their classrooms, and since there's little to no chance of the states and federal government replacing completely-filling-in-the-appropriate-circle with Professor Engel's much more interesting and educationally meaningful tests, I think that's where the better testing will stay for now.

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