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No Standardized Tests Left Behind

My mom was a teacher, I am related to a teacher.  I have teachers who are friends.  I respect people who choose to teach.  It’s not an easy job.  Of course not all of them are good.  My grade one teacher was an alcoholic which meant that each Monday morning (and several other mornings) the lights were turned off and the film strip was shown at a low level.  In grade 2 my teacher was a racist who introduced us to the offensive term, “spic“.  She was also emotionally abusive.  After that things got better and there was a lot of good teachers that taught me.  Some were also alcoholics and drug addicts but in the classroom, they taught me a lot. (Twelve years, two alcoholics, one racist, and one drug addict doesn’t seem that good in hindsight…)

Of all of the education topics that gets teachers riled up is the topic of standardized tests.  There is a reason for that.  Standardized testing has been used to fire teachers and in the case of Chicago, entire schools, including the janitors if test scores are too low.  Of course that doesn’t make any difference.  I visited a Chicago school that had “rebooted” it’s school twice and was on the third bunch of teachers and staff and the test scores were still awful and horrible.

I heard Senator Vern White speak of recruiting indigenous police officers.  He looked at one exam given to RCMP recruits from northern communities.  It had questions about traffic lights but none of those communities had traffic lights.  Of course they did poorly.  A more contextual test gave more accurate results.

There are just too many factors beyond the teachers control.  I have written about housing instability.  There are issues of instability in the family, disinterested parents, economic issues, drugs, and you have one year’s teacher being held accountable for what was being taught before them.

I do think there is a place for standardized tests in our education system.  They aren’t a tool for evaluating teachers but rather to identify problems before they get out of hand and see if our solutions are working.  

Let’s say we test students yearly and we start to see some trends starting that we know cause problems later on.  We know students in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods struggle more than others for many reasons.  Poor standardized tests would trigger resources designed to tackle the problem.  Those solutions could be a lot of things.  More computers in the classroom, an educational assistant, a breakfast or lunch program, or maybe a new educational method in an earlier grade.  Continued standardized testing becomes the tool to evaluate the changes to see if they are effective on a school by school basis.

Of course it was be a big deal to implement and take a lot of money but right now our standardized tests are kind of useless.  They don’t give individual feedback (so the data is useless to parents who want to see how their child is doing) and are not contexualized.  The advantage of doing this is a much better and bigger data set to tackle educational problems on a macro and micro level, information that most educators don’t have right now.  On a smaller level, it’s also information that parents need about their own children.

The bad part of this is that isn’t how standardized tests are used and I doubt anyone will ever do this but they do have potential, if we could only use it.

One Comment

  1. park_star says:

    Well I certainly feel that you’ve endured more than your fair share of poor teachers in your lifetime. I believe the acceptable stat floating around is 10-20% of teachers (or any professional) aren’t very effective in their job, to the point of being down right horrible. We certainly need mechanisms to deal with these teachers effectively and either help them improve (in a tangible and time sensitive way) or to have them removed from the profession.

    What you’re hoping to get from standardized testing, a way to track student progress, is what a student’s cumulative folder is for. Report cards could also be drastically improved so that they provide the accurate, informative records for parents and future teachers. However, there are real issues about what is acceptable to report on a permanent document like a report card currently, so you need some kind of Master’s degree to interpret what kind of breadcrumbs teachers and administrators are trying to leave. Let’s not even get into the fact that school divisions often purge cumulative folders completely before passing them on to a different division when students transfer.

    Standardized tests, unless given orally with lots of documentation and follow up questions (typically administered by Educational Psychologists) are poor at giving any real kind of information about individual student progress. Timing, context, format, the fact that curriculum is fluid, learning is not linear are all factors, not to mention that kids have bad days. Oh, and most students aren’t too motivated to write/do well on any kind of test that has no immediate effect on their day to day. All of the above of course is extremely dependant on the test being any good in the first place. Given the state of curriculum renewal in this province let’s say my hope of good tests coming out of this government are none.

    What standardized tests do reasonably well, is communicate large amounts of data about various populations back to the people who need them – like teachers, curriculum designers and the government. However, it’s been shown that random samples, and this information gathered as we do now (every three years or so) is just as accurate as having everyone write the test. Aside from saving precious classroom minutes for actual teaching (what’s that random hour requirement again SK government?) it also has added benefits of reducing the anxiety that surrounds high stakes testing and keeps teachers from teaching to the test.

    I have different uses for the various standardized testing that already exists in the province, and very little would I ever share with parents. This is largely because of all the background curricular knowledge necessary to understand the full picture of what a particular picture is saying. Not to mention, everyone can spin data and standardized tests results are no different. I’m wondering when our current governments are planning on celebrating that Saskatchewan is, according to our PISA results, one of the best places in the world to go to school.

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