11 October 2010

Testing (but only things that are easy to grade)

Author's note: Yesterday's post was supposed to include a whole raft of things from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. But, it was already super long, and honestly kind of boring, but just know that he thinks we struggle as a nation on international testing (especially math) because we have a culture that doesn't value hard work as much as others. If you think this may come up when I'm writing about parents, you're almost certainly correct.

So I was talking to a friend outside of church / temple / mosque (whatever house of worship makes you comfortable) about how her son was struggling in a high school Honors English class with writing. She claimed that they just don't teach writing well at the lower levels. This prompted me to attempt to explain that it wasn't that her son hadn't been taught writing (in fact, he was probably subjected to a massive amount of writing instruction), but that he was taught to write poorly, and now that he's reached a high school classroom, his teachers are trying to beat that poor writing out of his system.

And believe me when I say this, his teacher is just as upset about his lower-level writing instruction as his mother is. His teacher is frustrated, but she understands why this has happened. It's not the fault of those teachers in junior-high and elementary schools. They're just acting for their own self-preservation. They need scores in their classes and schools to improve, and so they need student writing to improve. So why is student writing so bad?

To prove that students are better writers

Wait. What?! The crappy writing exists to prove that the students are better writers? Yes. You see, the way we determine how good students (and by extension their teachers and schools) are is through testing. Many education professionals have decried the rise of testing. But, in their rants about the evils of testing they miss the point. The problem isn't that we test students, or that those tests are "high-stakes". I'll finish this part of my ramble with a statement you won't expect: "I don't mind testing"

In fact, I'll go one further, I love testing.

I love testing.

Well, there's something you don't see a public school teacher say very often. Before my colleagues show up at my door with the tar and feathers, I should probably explain. I love a good test. I teach AP classes, and the (standardized, national) tests are some of the most valuable things I have for planning a class which will help students actually learn college materials and earn college credits. In fact, I think the AP test makes my students better writers.

The problem (for state departments of education) is that the AP exam is famously hard and time-consuming to grade. In fact, several thousand trained AP teachers serve as readers for up to two weeks, per subject, to grade the roughly 250,000 exams.

In a state like Colorado, there are roughly 765,000 students. If each of them were to take a good test, for each of the four subjects that the state currently uses crappy tests for, the state would have to administer (and grade / pay for grading) more than 3 million tests a year. I think that it is safe to assume that grading those tests would consume a vast amount of time and money.

States are relatively famous for being tight with aforementioned money. So, instead of using a test like the AP exam, states have begun using standardized assessments. There's nothing wrong with standardized tests. Oh, except that because they're standardized, they want standard answers, which can be fine for areas like math and reading, where they can somewhat determine proficiency. But when it comes to subjects like science or writing, areas where you would like students to demonstrate individuality and inventiveness, a standard rubric (used to grade this test) means that students are taught to answer in a form which fits into the boxes of the rubric (because teachers want those students to pass those tests). Then, when that student gets to a class where the teacher wants them to write outside of that, they can't. They've been taught, over and over, to write into those little boxes. They simply have had the individuality sucked out of them.

Citizens know that these tests measure student growth and achievement. To satisfy citizen demands about accountability for spending those precious tax dollars, many states use testing data to determine "report cards" for schools. Often the state summarizes that data in pictures, then plops a letter grade on their in a category like "improvement". See what the DofE does there? They dumb it down for the average person. So, in order to show "improvement" and keep the taxpaying yokels happy, schools teach habits that we (as a society) don't value (not just writing habits, they also ignore ideas like citizenship to focus on improving skills. And why? To show "improvement". But that really only shows that studets got better at fitting into the boxes, and the boxes don't really show "improvement". But the states continue to churn them out. Why? Because it's easy. Which, as the italics show us, is the root problem here, and in general.

And now your tangential story

George W. Bush was the President who really pushed testing to the forefront. Since many of the tests were total crap, he took most of the heat. This is especially ironic, many felt, because he didn't appear able to pass basic writing tests (even crappy ones) when he spoke.

And so, he delivered many so-called Bushisms.

G.W. on testing:

"You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

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