When the Stakes are High, the Tests Had Better Be Up to It.

(This is on the stronger opinion side but, in the case of standardised testing as it is currently practised, this will be a polarising issue. Please feel free to read the next article and not this one.)

If you make a mistake, please erase everything from the worksheet, and then leave the room, as you have just wasted 12 years of education.

A friend on FB (thanks, Julie!) linked me to an article in the Washington Post that some of you may have seen. The article is called “The Complete List of Problems with High-Stakes Standardised Tests” by Marion Brady, in the words of the article. a “teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author”. (That’s attribution, not scare quotes.)

Brady provides a (rather long but highly interesting) list of problems with the now very widespread standardised testing regime that is an integral part of student assessment in some countries. Here. Brady focuses on the US but there is little doubt that the same problems would exist in other areas. From my readings and discussions with US teachers, he is discussing issues that are well-known problems in the area but they are slightly intimidating when presented as a block.

So many problems are covered here, from an incorrect focus on simplistic repetition of knowledge because it’s easier to assess, to the way that it encourages extrinsic motivations (bribery or punishment in the simplest form), to the focus on test providers as the stewards and guides of knowledge rather than the teachers. There are some key problems, and phrases, that I found most disturbing, and I quote some of them here:

[Teachers oppose the tests because they]

“unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep; hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring; penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways”

“wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known; emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance; create unreasonable pressures to cheat.”

“are open to massive scoring errors with life-changing consequences”

“because they provide minimal to no useful feedback”

This is completely at odds with what we would consider to be reasonable education practice in any other area. If I had comments from students that identified that I was practising 10% of this, I would be having a most interesting discussion with my Head of School concerning what I was doing – and a carpeting would be completely fair! This isn’t how we should teach and we know it.

I spoke yesterday about an assault on critical thinking as being an assault on our civilisation, short-sightedly stabbing away at helping people to think as if it will really achieve what (those trying to undermine critical thinking) actually wanted. I don’t think that anyone can actually permanently stop information spreading, when that information can be observed in the natural world, but short-sightedness, malign manipulation of the truth and ignorance can certainly prevent individuals from gaining access to information – especially if we are peddling the lie that “everything which needs to be discovered is already known.”

We can, we have and we probably (I hope) always will work around these obstacles in information, these dark ages as I referred to them yesterday, but at what cost of the great minds who cannot be applied to important problems because they were born to poor families, in the ‘wrong’ state, in a district with no budget for schools, or had to compete against a system that never encouraged them to actually think?

The child who would have developed free safe power, starship drives, applicable zero-inflation stable economic models, or the “cure for cancer” may be sitting at the back of a poorly maintained, un-airconditioned, classroom somewhere, doodling away, and slowly drifting from us. When he or she encounters the standardised test, unprepared, untrained, and tries to answer it to the extent of his or her prodigious intellect, what will happen? Are you sufficiently happy with the system that you think that this child will receive a fair hearing?

We know that students learn from us, in every way. If we teach something in one way but we reward them for doing something else in a test, is it any surprise that they learn for the test and come to distrust what we talk about outside of these tests? I loathe the question “will this be in the exam” as much as the next teacher but, of course, if that is how we have prioritised learning and rewarded the student, then they would be foolish not to ask this question. If the standardised test is the one that decides your future, then, without doubt, this is the one that you must set as your goal, whether student, teacher, district or state!

Of course, it is the future of the child that is most threatened by all of this, as well as the future of the teaching profession. Poor results on a standardised test for a student may mean significantly reduced opportunity, and reduced opportunity, unless your redemptive mechanisms are first class, means limited pathways into the future. The most insidious thread through all of this is the idea that a standardised test can be easily manipulated through a strategy of learning what the answer should be, to a test question, rather than what it is, within the body of knowledge. We now combine the disadvantaged student having their future restricted, competing against the privileged student who has been heavily channeled into a mode that allows them to artificially excel, with no guarantee that they have the requisite aptitude to enjoy or take advantage of the increased opportunities. This means that both groups are equally in trouble, as far as realising their ambitions, because one cannot even see the opportunity while the other may have no real means for transforming opportunity into achievement.

The desire to control the world, to change the perception of inconvenient facts, to avoid hard questions, to never be challenged – all of these desires appear to be on the rise. This is the desire to make the world bend to our will, the real world’s actual composition and nature apparently not mattering much. It always helps me to remember that Cnut stood in the waves and commanded them not to come in order to prove that he could not control the waves – many people think that Cnut was defeated in his arrogance, when he was attempting to demonstrate his mortality and humility, in the face of his courtiers telling him that he had power above that of mortal men.

How unsurprising that so many people misrepresent this.

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