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?