Monday, October 14, 2013

A Teacher Gives a Glimpse into High-Stakes Accountability Testing

TestStandardized tests have cemented their place as measures of students' performance compared with their peers.  These standardarized tests have grown in importance as politicians'  and policymakers' primary yardsticks for student learning, teacher effectiveness, and school accreditation. But assessing these tests' quality and using them to measure educational accountability is complicated, as Professor Daniel Koretz (Harvard Graduate School of Education) explains here. Test contents must be kept secure to maintain their integrity but that security also insulates them from critical examination. These considerations make a teacher's recent account of the 106-question test given to her eleven-year-old students even more troubling as a measure of educational effectiveness.  The teacher notes that a Pittsburgh 7th grader may take between 17 and 21 standard tests in one year, a situation that she fears fosters test fatigue and hopelessness. Here is a bit of what the teacher's letter that was published in the Washington Post:

You stand in front of the class and read a sentence to the children. You are allowed to repeat the sentence only once. Then the students select one of four pictures that they think most reflects what the sentence says. The children look determined; they are ready; you begin. ...

Then you get to the second question. Of 106 questions. The sentence you read says something like, “Luis draws a blank when he is asked to solve a math problem on the board.” The students have four drawings to choose from. In the second drawing, a student is drawing the kind of blank one would see on a paper on which students are directed to “fill in the blanks.” It is a blank. He is drawing it. You start to feel stomach pangs as you look around the room at eleven-year-olds, many of whom come from non-English-speaking families, or families for whom this type of idiomatic expression is not common, and you realize that you have never come across this expression in any of the literature you have taught students over the years. You know it is unlikely that many of these children will recognize the puzzled expression on the face in one of these pictures as the “right” answer....

Question twelve put me over the top.[] The sentence I read to the class said something like “she realized she could store her belongings in the bureau.” “Bureau.” There were four pictures to choose from. One was a building that looked like a public “bureau” of the government to me, but I doubted my students would think of that. One was of a tractor. Scratch that. But I looked at my students whose families speak Spanish at home. And I looked at the burro in picture “C.” Then I looked at the picture of what my family calls a chest-of-drawers. And I thought about how we have never used that word, “bureau,” for a piece of furniture. And I have never heard that word in the homes of my students’ families. And I thought, how crude, how cruel, how ignorant, how disrespectful of these children. What a set-up. Who would do that to kids?

This account is worrying. Many of us, as educators, professionals, or both, sat for long licensing exams, so the number of long standardized tests that children have to endure in a school year gives pause, but the test makers' assumption that students will mishear the prounciation of the word "bureau" for "burro" (and then providing a picture of a burro as an answer choice) feels rigged. Read more here.

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