Test­ing stu­dent learn­ing

It’s time to re­think the pur­pose of stan­dard­ized tests in Mary­land

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Joseph Ganem

Mary­land ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials are drop­ping the time-con­sum­ing, dis­rup­tive and un­pop­u­lar PARCC tests, and so­lic­it­ing bids from con­trac­tors to de­sign a new school test­ing reg­i­men. This is not sur­pris­ing given that the in­tro­duc­tion of new school as­sess­ments that im­me­di­ately wane in pop­u­lar­ity is a re­cur­ring event in Mary­land.

The PARCC tests re­placed the MSA (Mary­land School As­sess­ment) and HSA (High School As­sess­ment) tests, which were re­place­ments for the MSPAP (Mary­land School Per­for­mance As­sess­ment Pro­gram).

While the test acronyms keep chang­ing, three things stay the same: Ev­ery­one agrees that 1.) tests should be ad­min­is­tered, 2.) stan­dards should be kept high, and 3.) stu­dents, teach­ers and par­ents de­test stan­dard­ized tests.

To break from this ex­pen­sive and frus­trat­ing cy­cle, we should re­think the pur­pose of tests. Stan­dard­ized tests, as cur­rently de­signed, tell us what stu­dents

know, and we as­sume that not know­ing is in­dica­tive of fail­ure to learn. But this as­sump­tion is false.

For ex­am­ple, a stu­dent could have ar­rived at school al­ready meet­ing the stan­dards be­ing tested, gone through the mo­tions of at­tend­ing class ev­ery day and learned noth­ing. A stan­dard­ized test would not flag this stu­dent’s fail­ure to learn.

Con­versely, a stu­dent could have ar­rived at school not even know­ing the English lan­guage, at­tended class ev­ery day and, while not yet com­pletely flu­ent, made sub­stan­tial progress in English lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion. A stan­dard­ized test would flag this stu­dent as de­fi­cient de­spite the enor­mous amount learned.

This “de­fi­ciency” would also be mis­lead­ing be­cause not only would the de­vel­op­ing bilin­gual stu­dent have learned much more, but bilin­gual­ism will be a ma­jor as­set as an adult — not a deficit. Fur­ther­more, bilin­gual­ism is just one ex­am­ple of an as­set that would be over­looked by a stan­dard­ized test. Knowl­edge and skills in sports, art, mu­sic, de­sign and lead­er­ship, to name a few, don’t nec­es­sar­ily en­hance test scores but will be im­por­tant as­sets in stu­dents’ fu­tures.

These ex­am­ples raise a more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion beyond the pur­pose of tests. Should schools be in­sti­tu­tions of learn­ing or train­ing cen­ters that is­sue cer­ti­fi­ca­tions of com­pe­tency for a nar­row range of skills? The com­mit­ment to up­hold­ing “stan­dards,” how­ever high, and test­ing for them, pur­poses schools as boards of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. The in­ten­tion is well mean­ing — see­ing to it that ev­ery child has an equal chance in life — but it is also mis­guided.

The vast so­cial and eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties that plague our so­ci­ety do not arise from nor­mal dif­fer­ences in tal­ents, in­ter­ests and abil­i­ties among chil­dren. These in­equal­i­ties arise from cor­rupt and dys­func­tional po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic struc­tures. Stan­dard­ized tests are a coun­ter­pro­duc­tive re­sponse be­cause they do noth­ing to elim­i­nate these struc­tural in­equal­i­ties, while seek­ing to erase the hu­man di­ver­sity that is es­sen­tial for a vi­brant and thriv­ing so­ci­ety. The so­cial and eco­nomic in­equities that cor­rode our democ­racy need to be reme­died through the po­lit­i­cal process. Stan­dard­ized tests can­not fix them.

An ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion based on stan­dards in­vari­ably re­sults in check­lists be­ing brought out and omis­sions noted, rather than ac­com­plish­ments cited. It is a gen­eral truth of the hu­man con­di­tion that the list of knowl­edge and skills a per­son pos­sesses will al­ways be short com­pared to the list that per­son lacks. Ed­u­ca­tion, when viewed through this lens, be­comes an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity.

Ar­tic­u­lat­ing and assess­ing “stan­dards” is also a fu­tile ex­er­cise. A list of skills for “col­lege and ca­reer readi­ness” — to bor­row a re­cent phase — is guar­an­teed to be ob­so­lete be­fore any­one has a chance to grad­u­ate, be­cause the world is chang­ing too fast. The his­tory of Mary­land test­ing shows this to be the case. How­ever, there are two con­stants in all the change: the need for life-long learn­ing and the fact that the econ­omy is de­mand­ing a greater di­ver­sity of tal­ents, skills and dis­po­si­tions; not less.

Our chil­dren are not ro­bots man­u­fac­tured to com­ply with iden­ti­cal prod­uct spec­i­fi­ca­tions. They are hu­man be­ings and should be treated as such. Their di­ver­sity should be cel­e­brated, not erased. Schools should be places of learn­ing. Tests are an es­sen­tial part of the ed­u­ca­tion process, but they should be in­di­vid­u­al­ized to as­sess what a child has learned, not what he or she doesn’t know. And all stu­dents should be chal­lenged to learn, re­gard­less of whether or not they meet the “stan­dards.” In our schools, learn­ing should be the stan­dard.

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