Finland, a perennial top performer on the international PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, commits each student to such a test only once in that student’s entire educational experience. They do extremely well in international educational comparisons.
On the other hand, to the detriment of time spent providing quality classroom learning experiences for our kids, we test them into a stupor. Additionally, the test results are often presented to the public in a misleading way. Beyond that, some question whether standardized tests challenge students in all the areas that they should be challenged in. Finally, what does the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) show us about achievement over an extended period of time?
Looking at past MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) scores one finds that, year after year after year, wealthy districts score high on that test while poorer districts reside in the lower reaches of results. It becomes obvious that income can be used as a proxy for factors outside of the school. One panelist on a Harvard University group discussing education called it the “iron-clad correlation” between socio-economic factors and student proficiency. The Michigan Department of Education throws “parental involvement” into the mix.
What is crystal clear is that parental educational level, parental involvement in a student’s education, stability at home, nutrition, health care, neighborhood environment and other factors play a huge role in determining the motivation and persistence necessary for success in school. As the weight of these factors is different from district to district, valid comparisons across school districts cannot be made using raw scores alone.
The fact is that a school, whose raw score is high on a standardized test, may not be a school of high quality at the same time that a school scoring low may, indeed, be a high quality school. It, mostly, depends upon the “iron-clad” socio-economic and parental involvement correlation with student success that is present in each individual school’s student population. Some (like Bridge magazine’s Academic State Champs rankings) have taken note of this and integrated family income and the number of economically disadvantaged students into calculations of school quality in Michigan. Doing so provides a different, better and much more realistic ranking.
But test results are not to be used in a competitive race among different students, school districts or states. On the contrary, test scores should be used as a tool for educators to evaluate their personal classroom behavior, how well their class and individual students are doing and the degree to which the curriculum is aligned with the test.
At the very least, test results may point the way to a change in pedagogy, student responses to those changes and needed changes in the curriculum that improve educational outcomes. They are not part of an educational horse race, with winners and losers, as both the Michigan Department of Education and the United States Department of Education list school districts, wrongly, use raw test scores as a measure of quality.
Then, there is the question of what these tests do and do not measure. They do not touch upon ability in art, physical education or music and some other aspects of the curriculum. As a generalization it is fair to recognize that overuse of standardized tests narrows the curriculum.
A recent study, done by psychologists, at Harvard, Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also found that a higher test score on a standardized test does not necessarily mean a higher thinking level.
Studying almost 1,400 students in Boston Public Schools, psychologists found that some schools raised student’s scores on the statewide assessment. But no improvement was found on what psychologists call “fluid intelligence” – working memory capacity, the speed of information processing and the ability to solve abstract problems. Only 3 percent of the variation of those factors were attributable to schools.
In a period where knowledge and manipulating knowledge is increasingly important, analysis, synthesis and evaluation, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity generally, should rank high within a curriculum. They do not.
Finally, what do these tests show over time? At a time when the typical urban student is administered standardized tests 112 times during their educational experience and at a time when the Superintendent of Michigan schools is proposing that students be tested twice a year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows reading scores in 2015 to have dropped five points since 1992. Math scores have been stagnant for a decade. Perhaps the Finns know something that we do not.
Our dependence upon big data and testing has been a miserable failure. Clearly, it is time to reject standardized testing as a means to improve educational outcomes. It is time to replace standardized testing with classroom learning experiences. It is time to place politicians and reformers, who don’t know jack about how children learn, on the shelf and listen to teachers who do know how children learn when setting educational policy.
Al Churchill of Livonia is a retiree of United Auto Workers Local 182.