Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Little Bit on Standardized Testing

Today I ready a blog post by Matt Yglesias that hits the nail on the head for how I feel about standardized tests and the arguments against them.  My feelings on standardized testing are a little more complicated than what can easily be communicated in a single blog post but generally speaking I think they are essential.  Not because they accurately test what children have learned and not because they are the best way to evaluate teachers and not because the are fair to everyone.  Those concerns are more complex and require a nuanced discussion.  

The essential part about standardized tests are that by their very nature they are not especially difficult.  They are geared towards standards that most children should be passing with ease.  They are a blunt instrument that measures whether children are achieving even the most basic skills required to progress in our society.  Students not passing standardized tests is unacceptable because generally speaking that means you can't read and we are failing.

Yglesias' post mentions how high the functional illiteracy rate is in Detroit.  DC also suffers from a shockingly high functional illiteracy rate.  Students who are not functionally literate cannot pass standardized tests, including the math portions.  I would venture a guess that not doing well on standardized tests correlates highly with not going to college and diminished earning power throughout life.  Because that's what happens when someone can't read and it is a tragedy.

When people throw standardized tests under the bus they cite low expectations, not encouraging students to be creative, being unfair to children who just aren't great test takers.  All those are probably legitimate to a certain extent.  But if we were all doing our jobs they would be irrelevant.  Standardized tests are only a big deal because of the extent to which we fail at educating our students.  When people talk about standardized testing not really measuring anything they are talking from the perspective of someone who is worried about the difference between the 60th percentile and the 90th.  What standardized tests and NCLB are actually useful for is finding out where the 0-30 percentile is and targeting those children as the ones who need to learn to read right now or be damned to a life without options.

Are standardized tests a panacea?  Like everything in education the answer is no.  But it is naive to think they don't play an important role and that they don't provide a legitimate benchmark in our lowest performing schools.  Nothing drives me crazy like someone telling me a school with 30% proficiency is actually a good school despite the test scores.  Maybe that school is moving in the right direction but until everyone can read well enough to move the proficiency into the 80s or 90s  it isn't a good school.  Think about going into a school and picking four children at random.  How heartbreaking would it be if one of them couldn't read? What about if two couldn't read?  What about three?  What if it was in high school?

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