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Bruno: What Teachers *Really* Think About Standardized Tests

image from www.bostonpublicschools.orgThis is sort of a nit-picky post, but I'm on spring break so I'm cutting myself some slack and taking it easy.

Since the release of the Scholastic/Gates survey, I've seen a number of commentators arguing that the results indicate that the vast majority of teachers think that their students' standardized test results aren't important. Here's Anthony Cody, for example, claiming that "only 28% of teachers see standardized tests as an essential or important gauge of student assessment". And here's Alfie Kohn this morning claiming that "[o]nly about ¼ of teachers think standardized tests accurately reflect kids’ achievement".

And those interpretations are pretty reasonable given the decisions the publishers made about which results to emphasize.  The trouble is, those decisions seem questionable. If you look at the version of the report released with appendices, you can see what I mean.

When asked "how important [state-required standardized tests are] in measuring students' academic achievement", only 28% of teachers say they are "extremely" or "very" important. That's not very many, but another 50% of respondents said that such tests are "somewhat" important. In other words, fully 78% of teachers think standardized tests are important to some degree in assessing student learning. And that's in spite of the fact that such tests are given infrequently (or not at all for some teachers) and often provide results only months later.

The result that only 26% of teachers agree "strongly" or "somewhat" that state test results "are an accurate reflection of student achievement" is similarly difficult to interpret. Another 41% of teachers, it turns out, "disagree somewhat" with that claim. All told, then, 65% of teachers agreed or disagreed "somewhat", which I think is consistent with lots of teachers believing that standardized test results do accurately reflect student achievement, even if that reflection is in some way incomplete.

And my sense - based entirely on personal experience - is that that's exactly how most teachers feel about standardized tests: that they are but one of many sources of information about student learning. It would be foolhardy to depend on them exclusively or even primarily, but it would also be negligent to dismiss them out of hand. At least, that's how I feel about them. - PB (@MrPABruno)

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Perhaps better yet, one might combine the two results to conclude that if better assessments were available, the teachers' assessment of how valuable those assessments are as indicators of student learning would rise; which implies that we ought to be spending time on creating such better assessments, particularly those in use at the age when compulsory education ends (which coincides, roughly, with the age at which the PISA assessments are determined). A good first step might be to begin where Shanghai did in the mid-1980s, that is, by banning all multiple choice tests. We need more authentic assessments that define student performance in terms of the outcomes we are searching for, which is really a certain kind of person rather than a certain number of correct answers on a bubble sheet.

All assessments are valuable in guiding better practice for teachers, and for getting information on student proficiency. The problem isn't the test...it's the value put on the test. It is only a PART of what is going on with learning. However, it is used as the sole determining factor for student proficiency, and teacher effectiveness.

The results are not accurate in themselves. As a part of a greater scheme, they can be very helpful.

It's been a few years since my high school days ended, but I remember many teachers complaining about having to teach us "how to take NECAP tests." They had to work their curriculum around getting us prepared to take these tests, and they hated it. I've heard that this year, the new principal decided to fight against NECAP testing and that if the petition works, students will not longer take them after 2015. I've also heard he decided that exams in themselves are pointless and dropped all mid-terms and final exams. Not sure I agree with that though because once students hit college, if they're not used to testing, college entrance exams will be tough.

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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.