Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Standardized Tests?

The current education debates often result in a discussion of to test or not to test. Having just received a host of scores related to last year's students' progress, I'm inspired to write about my thoughts related to testing.

I consider myself an advocate of streamlined, standardized tests that are used to improve academic programs and conditions for excellence.  I am not in favor of utilizing standardized tests to punish or reward teachers and schools, instead I believe that tests should lead school leaders and teachers alike to reflection and action that continue to develop and build their school's service delivery for all students.

As a teacher in Massachusetts, I've worked with standardized tests for many years. There are both advantages and disadvantages to these tests.  The advantages include the following:
  • The tests define essential knowledge standards thus providing common language and academic goals for educators, leaders, students, and parents across the State when it comes to developing optimal programs.
  • All students are tested and their scores are noted so whether you're a child with tremendous socio-economic support or one with very little, your scores are reported and your school is held accountable for your progress.  Prior to these tests, a child who couldn't read could slip through without note.
  • Utilizing the scores as a means of analysis and reflection can help schools to build better academic programs to meet all students' needs.
The disadvantages to the tests include:
  • Rather than seen as a means to improvement, the tests have been utilized to foster competition, and the competition, in turn, has turned many schools into "testing factories" rather than educational centers that service the whole child.
  • The standards are great in breadth, thus making coverage and acquisition often impossible leaving little room for meaningful, community-based/related education, and responsive student-centered learning. (Note that the PARCC tests remedy this to a degree.)
  • Socio-economic factors have been dismissed and ignored when year after year the schools with the best scores are the wealthiest, and schools with the lowest scores generally face dramatic socio-economic issues.
  • The tests only assess a narrow dimension of student learning and learning styles when in reality, many of our most successful adults demonstrate skill and mastery in areas not included on standardized tests such as social skills, drive/passion, athletic endeavor, artistic skills, and more. The narrow scope of tests also deters schools from embracing in-depth, project-based learning that motivates students and develops noted 21st century/lifelong learning skills: creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, citizenship, and character as well as my addition, community--skills which greatly impact our future.
  • Conditions for excellence such as student confidence, basic needs (sufficient nutrition, health care (including dental care), shelter, clothing), optimal learning facilities/playgrounds, and social-emotional factors are not assessed yet we all know those factors impact academic success greatly.
So, the issue is not to test or not to test, instead the issue is what makes a successful school and/or academic program. We can move closer to this goal with the following actions:
  1. Establish a broad criteria for school/student excellence for all schools. Then utilize the criteria to better serve schools rather than punishing them. Criteria could include the following:
    • Acquisition of essential knowledge skills for all students as determined by common core guiding principles and streamlined standardized tests.
    • Optimal learning environments that are safe, clean, tech-savvy, inspiring, and big enough to accommodate all students with care and respect.
    • Acquisition of 21st century/lifelong learning skills through meaningful, project based exploration.
    • Motivated, confident, inspired students whose social, physical, academic, and emotional needs are noted, understood, and nurtured.
    • Dedicated, professional skilled staff and administration.
  2. Utilize test scores and criteria evaluations to determine where the needs and questions are.  Work closely with universities and other research centers to refine and communicate criteria for excellence, common core standards, and instructional practices. Create opportunities for shared development and knowledge throughout the country, and note successes regularly.
  3. Continue to analyze the role of schools and education with respect to our country's and world's future.  What's important to Americans as they consider the role of education for all children and citizens?
  4. Develop the education profession by establishing high standards, optimal preservice academic programs, adequate pay, and professional working conditions.
To test or not to test is not the issue.  Formative testing and streamlined, standardized testing, when used appropriately, help us to develop and improve school programs, but it's only one piece of the complex, ever-changing landscape of schools and academic performance.  I'm interested in your thoughts on this topic.  Please don't hestitate to comment.