Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In response to my friend, Corey

Earlier today, I shared a blog post on Facebook from Wes Fryer about his thoughts on standardized testing. My friend Corey responded with this comment:
"I don't have kids, so I don't have a horse in this race, but after reading this article, I still don't understand why standardized tests are so hated. As a student growing up, I liked standardized tests because I felt like they validated that fact that yes, I was learning. Standardized test results may not spark an interesting conversation, but does reading a report card spark interesting conversation? I honestly don't see how standardized tests obfuscate "real" learning."
His post reminded me of exactly what most people think about standardized testing, so I wanted to respond in a way that will help those outside the public education world see what some of our issues are.  So, here goes!

Corey, first of all, I want to assure you that not only do you have a horse in this race - you ARE a horse in the race.  First of all, you are a product of public schools, and you have a valid opinion and experience with what is going on.  Don't hesitate to share what you know and how you feel.  That's the only way the people in charge can be in touch with their constituents.  Secondly, you may not have any kids in the public education system, but you are (and will continue to be) governed by its graduates.  Here is an interesting study on the education of our state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.  It doesn't say so, but I would guess that the vast majority of the state legislators did not go to private schools or charter schools.  Finally, even if you don't consider those things important, you most certainly do have a financial stake in the public education system.  I don't know the facts in Texas, but I would bet they are similar to those in Oklahoma.  So, let's deal with the ones I do know about.

Fifty-two percent of the budget of the State of Oklahoma is spent on education.  The last figures I saw had 50% of the State Department of Education budget spent on various aspects of standardized testing - including development, printing, study guides, grading, etc.  Now, I will say that is not an official figure, but seeing as I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department in May and as yet they have not deigned to respond (which, incidentally, is illegal), that is the number I'm going with.  So, now you have 25% of the entire budget of the State being spent on standardized testing (paid to an out of state company, so it doesn't even create local jobs).

So yes, you are a very important part of this discussion.  It's your future, and it's your money being spent here.

Now, let me respond to the rest of your comment.  I feel pretty qualified to do so, because until 7 years ago, I felt the same way.  I even thought No Child Left Behind was a good idea.  Then I started teaching, and I began to see the true effects of what we were doing to these kids. 

It's been 20 years, so I may not be remembering everything correctly.  However, I know you were in several of my classes, and I remember you as being very intelligent.  So, I'm guessing your report card looks something like mine did.  Just for everyone else, here is mine:  

I took speedwriting?  Really?  Mom & Dad, what were you thinking letting me get away with that!?  At any rate, speedwriting aside, you can see that school was not an issue for me.  Standardized tests were a blessing because, to me, they are easy.  Like you, I was assured that I was learning something when I took them.  I am going to ask you to step out of that mindset for a moment and put yourself in the place of some of our other students.

What would happen if every time you received a standardized test, it said you weren't good enough.  That you hadn't learned enough?  What if you did the best you could, but the things you knew weren't on the test, and the things they tested just didn't make sense to you?  How about if you struggled with school because the only time you ate was in the school cafeteria, and you had to babysit your siblings at night, so you couldn't study?  You still learned, but maybe not as fast as the other kids.  However, the teacher couldn't slow down because we had to pass the test, and there is only so much time to review.  You knew you weren't going to pass, so why try, right?  Not only that, now they are going to fail you because you didn't pass the test, even though you have passing grades.  If all of your work is not good enough, why continue in school?

How about the student who excels in science, but struggles with reading and math?  Because of the high stakes of passing reading and math tests, teaching science and social studies in many schools is not only not encouraged, but not allowed.  Now, not only are those tests going to tell you you aren't good enough, but they are going to tell you that no one cares about the things you ARE good at.

Or what about the artistic student?  I remember your performances in high school, and you post often about the plays you are involved in now.  What would you have thought if the decided to put all of their money into programs to get students to pass those tests because the stakes for the district are so high.  Thus, no more art or music teachers.  No more librarians.  No more musicals, plays or band.  This isn't a "what if."  This is the reality in many places.

These are just a few realities - and they don't even include the fact that these tests are often inaccurate.  They are extremely biased toward the middle and upper class experiences.  The grading is random (passing scores are changed often by the State Department, and the curriculum tested also changes), so there is no real comparison from year to year of how kids are doing.  Grading is often inaccurate - as exemplified by Pearson's mistakes in this year's calculations.  There is no allowance for bad questions, bad answers or even questions without a correct answer or which are marked incorrectly in the answer codes.  No one involved in the testing is allowed to see the questions, so there is no way to check these things.

I am all in favor of assessing students' knowledge.  However, when the assessment is not accurate and succeeds more in limiting knowledge than expanding it, there has to be a change.  For another point of view, read about a school board member in Florida who decided to take the tests.

Corey, I know this didn't address the question about whether they obfuscate learning - it was geared more toward some of the other issues.  However this post is already way longer than most people will read, so I will have to get to that in another post.   Hopefully, this at least brought up some questions about what we are doing with standardized testing and placing such a high emphasis on them.

To the rest of you reading this, I graduated from high school in the top 12% of my class.  I was in the Honor Society.  I was a National Merit Scholar.  I scored a 35 out of 36 on the verbal portion of my ACTs.  I graduated Cum Laude from law school, and I passed the bar exam in 2 states.  I am a National Board Certified Teacher.  Here are my test scores from high school:

If a 70 is passing, and I was in the 69th percentile and you must pass both reading and math to graduate - should I have graduated?  Something to consider as you think about our new laws that require passing these tests to get a diploma.


  1. You do need to prepare yourself to run for the school board yourself one day. I can think of no one who would come across as a more informed, lucid, sincerely passionate advocate. Not only that, but it would be foolish for anyone to try to cast doubt on your integrity!


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