May 22, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at May 22, 2003 10:18 PM None of my regular readers are Plasticians (as far as I know) so I don't feel guilty about recycling my posts from there (as I'm about to do). There's a discussion running today (Bush Raises Education Bar - States Issue Platform Shoes) about how states are artificially raising their standardized test scores by lowering standards in order to meet federal requirements. What really set me off, though, was a comment making the common argument that "teaching to the test" isn't a problem if the test covers the right content. My own public school experience has made me skeptical of standardized testing, but until I pounded out this post I didn't realize how visceral my feelings were. Anyway, here's the full text of my comment. (Italics are quotes from the post I'm responding to.)
Subject: Teaching to the test is not so easy to solve.

How hard is it to teach a kid reading, writing and 'rithmatic, and to then test for it?

On the level of an individual classroom, not insurmountably difficult. But how hard is it to test for, say, writing skills on a statewide level in a standardized way? My guess is it's pretty damn hard.

The state will have hundreds of thousands of writing samples to evaluate, so you have to hire a bunch of people to grade these things. For these evaluations to be any good, they should be controlled in some way across the different graders, so someone draws up a rubric of what, for purposes of the test, defines "good writing". It's not enough just to check grammar, spelling and punctuation students need to write coherently as well as correctly. It's important that the rubric be strictly adhered to, so that a student's score doesn't depend on which grader he happens to get, but on the other hand any attempt to distill the essence of "good writing" into a ten point score is necessarily going to be incomplete.

In addition to the rubric the test makers have to put some constraints on form and content of the writing sample. Obviously fiction and poetry are out too hard to draw up a corresponding rubric. Testing the ability to write a research paper is too impractical. Topics political in nature or otherwise thought-provoking may bring out some bias in the grader, so those need to be avoided. So the only thing a standardized writing test can really test is the ability to write short essays on extremely bland subjects. This is where "teaching to the test" comes in.

If the problem is "teaching to the test", make the test reflect the objectives. Problem solved.

I hear this frequently, and it seems to me that such an argument ignores the practicalities of standardized testing.

The biggest problem is that one can increase one's score on a standardized test through familiarity with its form as well as its content. (I understand this is the principle behind SAT preparation courses.) This leads to the biggest single waste of my time when I was in high school (and that's saying a lot!): practice tests. Literally weeks of class time spent taking the standardized tests over and over again, practicing that short bland essay when we could be reading literature or writing fiction or poetry. We actually studied the grading rubric itself it took on importance far in excess of its design and became the de facto definition of good writing for my sophomore English class. This is what is meant by "teaching to the test", and it's a total waste of time and money. A true test of a student's writing ability and versatility cannot be done on a statewide level.

And that is why I blame the Connecticut Academic Performance Test for all my short and bland Plastic posts.

Any thoughts? Tags:

When I was a law student, we generally understood there were two kinds of law schools- the ones that "taught to the test" (the Bar Exam) and those that taught analytical thinking and critical examination and assumed the students would pick up the law they needed for the Bar Exam along the way. UT was of the latter class as were most of the top twenty or so schools- all the Ivies, Boalt, Michigan, Georgetown, etc. The graduates of the latter went to the great corporate law factories, became partners, and worked on the great deals of the last 25 years.

The former came to places like Houston, became trial lawyers, developed practices suing tobacco companies and the asbestos people and now have their own private jets.

Draw such conclusions as you will.

Posted by: Jeremiah Spur | May 24, 2003 2:27 PM

Idiot policies created by idiots produce more idiots

In the next couple years, WA state will be adopting strict requirements where state tests will determine whether or not a student graduates. With a high ESL population, kids will fail and be doomed to clean toilets for the rest of their lives. And this for an algebra test, among other tests, that WA state government officials probably would fail! So lets cut funding so that more students can fail! This isn't about college folks, its about crap. And elitist crap is still crap.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 28, 2003 3:46 PM

Re: Idiot policies created by idiots produce more idiots

This strategy must go along with the school prayer provision. Once the schools get their federal funding cut for poor performance, their only remaining option will be to pray for higher scores...

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | May 28, 2003 4:12 PM
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