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Bruno: The "Gotcha" Mentality Behind "Take the Test"


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Paul Bruno is a California-based middle-school science teacher who can be found at @MrPABruno:

Critics of standardized testing have begun urging education officials to take the same tests they require of students and to make the results public.  This movement began back in early December when Valerie Strauss published the story of a school board member who struggled with the tests and a follow-up post revealing the school board member's identity and offering links to sample test questions. Testing critics have since taken up the cause on blogs and on Twitter because, in teacher-blogger Deven Black's words, "if the tests are adequate to judge teacher ability they must certainly be able to judge the ability of the people who hire the teachers, set curriculum and allocate assets to schools."

But why is that "certainly" the case? It's not obvious to me why we should care much about how most education officials do on, say, a test of 10th grade math or why their doing poorly would constitute evidence against the use of standardized tests generally.

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I can see why we'd want teachers to be able to ace these tests and their students to do well on them, but the jump to policy officials seems like a non sequitur.  The "good for the goose, good for the gander" argument doesn't work because if teachers are the "goose" in this metaphor, education officials aren't really a "gander"; their jobs have almost nothing in common. People with different jobs should be assessed according to different criteria.

I think the "Take the Test" movement maybe trying too hard to catch advocates of testing in a "gotcha," possibly at the expense of good messaging.  If we don't  articulate why public officials should be expected to do well on a standardized test but criticize them for doing poorly on it, I think teachers are going to end up sounding elitist to the broad swathes of the public that would also probably do poorly on the very same assessments.

And why shouldn't they do poorly on many of the tests?  We should probably hope that people in 10th grade would do well on a 10th grade math test, but after many years down career paths that do not require 10th grade math skills many adults would understandably be rusty if you sat them back down with the test.  And the same is true for many education officials.

That's not an indictment of these adults or of their 10th grade math teachers, but it's also not an indictment of the test.  It's just a reflection of the fact that many people's adult lives do not require some of the specific skills that are taught in schools.  

The line between "policy disagreement" and "personal/professional attack" in education reform debates is crossed often enough these days as it is, and these calls to "take the test" sound suspiciously like the latter.  - PB (@MrPABruno)

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I am afraid Paul Bruno misses the point raised by Rick Roach, the Florida school board member who raised this issue several months ago. Mr. Roach wrote:

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had."

These are the real questions being raised. Is the knowledge being tested relevant to the future lives of our students? And by that, I mean lives beyond the next set of required tests? Because it seems to me our education system has in large part become a dog chasing its tail, where we justify one set of tests by the fact that they supposedly prepare our students for the next set of tests, and these in turn prepare them for college. And the entire project has come unmoored from the mission of preparing our young people for the real tests of life.

Asking elected officials to take the tests is not some kind of gotcha game, much less a "personal/professional attack." It is a genuine plea that our elected officials re-engage with the educational process, and find out, as did the Florida school board member, what it is our students and teachers are being held accountable for. That seems like a very sound idea to me.

I'd just add that the difficulty of the tests is often misrepresented by politicians. Here is Rhode Island, our 11th grade math assessment is very rigorous -- you can make a good argument that it is about twice as difficult to pass as Massachusetts' MCAS -- but when it suits them politicians will call it a numeracy test. That's pretty clearly untrue if you try to take it.

I was going to say what Anthony said. Those of us who deal with these tests regularly would love to see more people familiar with it. By the time they get to high school, many students don't care about the tests The "reading" questions often require very little reading. Often, questions are poorly designed. It would be nice if policy makers simply understood the mediocrity they rely on far too readily. I don't care what their scores are.

Its interesting that it is "all right" to hang the career of teachers on these tests but the people making that decision should not be required to take them even so they are exposed to the types of questions that sometimes challenge the validity of the test itself. This is a real concern of teachers and parents who have to live with the results of tests whose questions they cannot see. One of Mr Roache's concerns was validity as he saw questions with no clear obvious answer or with more than one possible correct answer. And by the way he took it voluntarily. It seems the real "gotcha" here is that teachers are being forced to stake their careers on tests that no one is allowed to see except the folks at the testing company and State employees who owe their jobs to politicians.

"education officials aren't really a "gander"; their jobs have almost nothing in common"

It is extremely odd to me to hear that education officials have jobs "nothing in common" with teachers, or with the content judged on these tests. Let's look at that math question.

School board members (ed officials) are ultimately responsible for budgets and student outcomes. They are overseeing millions in public funds. They certainly must interpret complex numerical data and make funding decisions about programs, curriculum, business, personnel, and of late cuts, and other enormously complicated things that require AT LEAST tenth grade math. At least.
If they CAN'T do that then they utterly rely on the word of employees that may or may not represent to them the facts.Think of what they decide regarding salary, the complexity of benefits, personnel, supplies, federal monies, test scores, good grief you must know this.
So, actually, they do, in fact need math. And the more they command it the more they can do their work as other than a "yes" or a "no."

Further like the teacher these public officials are rightfully seen by their communities as capable. They lead and ASK for this responsibility. It would seem almost ridiculous that they could not do the things a student is expected to do. I would expect Arne Duncan to be capable of calculus, writing an essay, passing a chemistry AP test as well as take a Dibel's exam, pass an exit exam from high school, bone up on biology, know art history, ace an AP Art test and pass the National Teacher's Exam. After all he is the EDUCATION Secretary. And MOST education officials surely can do these kinds of things as well. Would you want medical officials that could not do the work of tenth grade students on a medical track? Would you argue that the standards in medicine be set by those that can't pass a 7th grade science test? Would a surgeon best be guided by surgical officials that for the most part just enjoy telling the surgeon what to do by some proxy?

After all in doing these tests the education official would gain insight into what these tests, do, in fact look like.And perhaps realize a bit more than that.

I really think the purpose of Ms. Strauss' piece was not to goose anyone. It was to state that in not actually taking and passing and experiencing these tests Education policy makers may not best understand some of the more ridiculous issues with them, one being they are on steroids in many cases. And it might be they realize as well that perhaps they are not the person best equipped to make these judgements and then they might get some teachers into the picture. They might see schools have radically changed course, and are quite a bit beyond the level expected of these policy makers when they were in school.

I'm a teacher. I will gladly submit to the tests. Of course I'd like a week's notice to brush up on subject areas I have not taught in awhile.
But I do not enjoy working under the leadership of boards that didn't finish high school. Which I experience. Or are unable to articulate grammatically appropriate thoughts into sentences. Or those in positions of making grand curricular decisions that cost millions that are not capable of relating to the material or reading and analyzing data for themselves.

Ultimately the test has subsumed the education. It has become the thing beyond question.
What this does is call into question the test, it's placement as hallowed truth.
You can do more work as a commentator and figure out why by talking to those that took the time to comment here-or who you cited, or you can armchair it.
But if you would do that work, and as a teacher I ask you too do it, you might come to better understand this. Start with talking to Valerie Strauss.

@Sarah - There's a lot there, but suffice it to say that I think you're assuming a great deal about the job of a school board member (what you're describing is mostly advanced arithmetic and basic algebra) and the content of 10th grade math (which includes a large amount of geometry and more advanced algebra). I think there's just not as much overlap in required skills as you're imagining.

Meanwhile, I have no problem if Arne Duncan can't do calculus. His job requires no calculus, so it really doesn't seem to matter. What I would like Duncan to do is find some math experts when it comes time to set math standards (or whatever). (What proportion of education officials do you think can do calculus?)

And just to be clear, I don't really object to the idea that education officials should generally be familiar with the content their schools are supposed to be teaching. (That is, they should know in what grades calculus is usually taught, for example.) The point is just that publicly shaming them for doing poorly on the tests doesn't seem to be helpful on the merits (though I realize it might be good PR).

Paul,
It seems to me that you are the one who has decided that the only reason we might want public officials to take these tests is to shame them when they do poorly. Might not there be other legitimate reasons?

Rick Roach did not express shame when he did poorly. Instead he reflected on the relevance of the test in relationship to his life beyond the grade at which the test was given.

So many decisions are now being connected to these tests. We have first and foremost, the future lives of our students. A great many students for one reason or another, do not do well on tests. Michelle Obama was one such student, and she has said that if her future had depended on her test scores, she would never have been successful.

Beyond that, we have teachers' careers, and the fate of entire schools.

But the test companies do not wish the tests to be questioned. Fill in the bubbles, pack them up in their secure packages, and all you ever get back are reams of data of dubious quality.

I am not interested in humiliating public officials. I AM interested in expanding the public discussion over the validity and relevance of the tests they are now using for an unprecedented array of decisions that have real consequences for millions of students and their teachers.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.