Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Issues Surrounding the Quality of Testing

One of my readers, a TFA alum, sent me the following email that raises extremely important and difficult issues about the quality of the tests used by many states and how much time schools should spend preparing students for them. Some folks who read this will take parts of this email and use it to reinforce their anti-testing crusade, but that would be incorrect. This is not a black-or-white issue, but rather a very nuanced one, with no easy answers, as my reader notes. I’d welcome further comments if you have experiences/perspectives to share. He writes:

Thanks for all the writing and thought-sharing that you do. As a black man from a middle-class background who performed extremely well on state and college standardized tests, for a long time I did not see what all the hullabaloo about testing was about. Then, I joined TFA and worked as a teacher at a high-performing charter school where the kids ROCKED the state tests, and routinely blow everyone, including more affluent students out the water year after year. 

Unfortunately, after the first few months of the school year, I was horrified to see that for the kids in the grade levels that were tested, come January, regular instruction began to cease and they were subjected to full-blown test prep from morning through mandatory after-school test prep (and sometimes Saturday school). As the test date got closer, teachers from other non-tested grade levels who had test-prep experience were pulled from their classroom to help prep the other kids, leaving the assistant teachers to lead their classes. As the tests got even closer, the school began "motivating" (I prefer to say bribing) kids with various prizes to maintain their stamina for hours of test prep. Did this all pay off? Yes. Absolutely yes. To repeat: the school’s scores were astronomical, especially given expectations for the low-income demographic they were serving.

I have visited other high-performing charter schools and the curriculum ranges from rote and developmentally inappropriate to an effective mix of traditional and progressive. The overall curriculum at my school was relatively progressive, very well rounded and in my opinion they have a leg up on other schools because they use many research-based best practices in all academic areas. However, in the tested grades, after the first few months of the school year, the majority of the day is shifted to test prep. It became all consuming. I understand why they do this: it gets results.

I now teach at another charter school, which also definitely does test prep, but they don't start as early and it's only a part of their day, not the majority of it. But the test scores aren’t nearly as good. Is it enough? I'm not sure where the line is, it's just easy to say when it has been crossed in either direction.

I struggle with this issue on a number of dimensions. First, one could also say that getting better at taking these tests will give students the skills to do well on the specialized high school exams and the SATs. A means to an end? I'm not sure, my feelings are really mixed. 

Also, what does it say that these types of all-consuming, "balls to the wall" test preparation methods are needed for low-income students to do well on the state tests? At my former school, the students had been there for a number of years prior to the testing years and the majority were reading and doing math above grade level, yet the test provided such a challenge for them. Without the extensive test prep, they wouldn’t have done nearly as well.

I don't know what the answer is, but the longer I've taught the more I find myself agreeing that the state tests don't actually measure what my students know. I used to think that the reason test scores correlated with income was because of underfunded and poorly run schools without high-quality teaching. After working in an environment with many resources, great teaching, and great infrastructure where the children still do not score well without months of full-time test prep, I am reluctantly coming to being one of those anti-testing people I was so skeptical of before. Additionally, after working at multiple charter schools, I can say that the schools' results have been directly proportional to the amount of time they spend on test prep. It's easy to say "just provide quality education and test prep won't be necessary" but I feel like it's not so simple. 

Anyways, I just wanted to share my thoughts. All the best! 

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