Standardized testing vs real learning.

Because of a “discussion” I have been having on twitter, I have been thinking about how standardized testing might be useful.  One person has claimed that testing leads to increased accountability so that under-represented groups might get a more equitable education.  While I think ensuring equitable education for all is important, I do not think standardized tests are the way to ensure or measure this equity.  I would like to share one of my experiences to help illustrate my point.

I teach in a district in which the majority of my students are hispanic & 65% of the students (hispanic or not) are considered “poor”.  I have many students who do not speak English very well, yet I am expected to teach them fairly advanced science content. This becomes a problem as oftentimes science seems like a foreign language even to those students for whom English is their first language.  To help all my students learn more deeply I work to make my lessons as concrete as possible.  We use real objects, I use demonstrations, and we draw a lot of pictures.  To further help the students for whom English is not their first language, I allow (encourage at times) small groups to discuss ideas in Spanish.

I remember one student who worked her butt off to understand how particles behave based on current scientific knowledge (Yes, particle physics is a fundamental science idea – ask Richard Feynman).  She was in ESL classes for every class except mine.  She struggled a lot with English, but seemed to follow the logic of the pictures we were drawing to show how particles move in response to different stimuli.  From the predictive drawings she made in class, I knew she understood how pressure, heat and number of particles affected the particles of a gas.  However, when I gave her my test over particles, she was not able to articulate this understanding very well.  Some would say, “well, she didn’t learn it”.  I took a different approach.

Instead of writing her off, I took my essential questions and made them questions that could be answered by drawing pictures.  For example, “if particles start out as box 1 and the particles are heated, draw the particles after heating in box 2”.  Please notice the difficult “if/then” logic of the questions.  I have not “dumbed down” the question.  Then I translated the questions into Spanish.  While I don’t speak Spanish fluently, I could understand her thinking from the drawings, she could understand my question in her native language.

She nailed the test!  Has she learned the material?  Have I done my job?  How would she do on the “standardized test”?  How is this fair to her or me?

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4 Responses to Standardized testing vs real learning.

  1. I’m in the EEP, EdTrust camp on equity/gap closing–don’t know how we do better without measurement, but appreciate your post.
    see my post today, http://edreformer.com/2010/05/state-edu-leaders-please-don’t-screw-up-the-next-decade-of-testing/

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    • jerridkruse says:

      I’m not against measuring, only the things we measure. I would rather have someone come in and measure the things I do to help kids learn – measure me, not my students. Education research consistently points to the teacher being the most important factor in learning, yet we keep measuring the students. Unfortunately, when we treat students as all the same (standardized), we do them an injustice. Good teachers help all kids flourish at what they are good at and work on what they are not so good at….measure the teachers efforts (something the teacher can control) and we’ll see results in the kids.

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  2. Interesting and well articulated. I think there is something we should all be considering that is seldom, if ever mentioned, using a system of pre-test and post-tests. Standardized tests aren’t a true measure of anything. However, if we first do a test to establish a baseline for a given population and then a post-test, and repeat this process over time so we can see how the tests are trending, then we have something with which to begin discussion.

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    • jerridkruse says:

      Education research makes use of pre/post tests often. I love pretest and post tests. Some would argue that since a standardized test is given every year, the pre/post data is there. The problem for me is whether that data is of value to me as the students teacher. I see two problems:

      1) Oftentimes the standardized test has nothing to do with the state mandated curriculum (both of these are a problem in my mind)

      2) The kinds of questions the tests ask kids are not useful to their lives. Education ought be meaningful beyond just passing an exam.

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