The various points of the year during which we do a lot of standardized testing are tough for me. I hate the stress these tests cause many students and even more teachers. I don’t like the disruption to our routine. I curse the lost time for more meaningful work. (I should note that we spend four days taking state mandated tests at my grade level as well as somewhere between ten and twelve days on district mandated online testing, plus there are one-on-one assessments for the district as well as school-based common assessments. I think we spend at least some time on close to 10% of our days on online testing. If you add the other assessments in they are impacting at least 20% of our days. That’s one day every week, on average.)
I believe those reasons are plenty to cause me to be frustrated. However, as I’ve spent some time thinking deeply about this in the past few weeks, I’ve come to identify a couple of other reasons this really bothers me. I’ll focus on one here (with plans to write about the other soon).
These tests are inherently inauthentic.
I am confident that strong attempts are made to create tests that are as authentic as possible. I don’t doubt the intentions at all. I do doubt that such a thing as an authentic, standardized test is truly possible.
It’s a lot like the way we interact with babies and young children. We ask them lots of questions to which we already know the answer. What color are your shoes? How many cheerios are on your tray? What does a kitty-cat say? Who is that (pointing at a family member)? And so on.
This is what tests do. They ask questions to which we already know the answer so we can tell what the kids know. Asking those questions doesn’t help a young child learn, it just reassures the adult about what they know. Standardized tests are the same. (I could be persuaded they have their place but with many, many stipulations about number of tests length of test, length of time spent on test, quality of test, preparation beforehand, and more.)
So, we’re busy asking kids questions to which we already know the answer (not questions that drive learning or encourage curiosity). We do it in a setting that is often quite different from the rest of their time in school. And we place a lot of value on it. So. Many. Problems.
Back to authenticity, or lack thereof. A reading test does not give a child any choice in what they read. We want kids to be able to read anything, but adult readers know that they do better as readers if they are reading something that interests them. We do make sure students read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry on their reading test. But they read whatever pops up next, no choice about when to read something or which poem they might want to read.
Then we ask questions to which we already know the answer. Questions that, often, don’t reflect the kind of thinking readers do as they engage with a text. Some of the questions are aimed at getting at that thinking, but come at it from such an odd way.
When was the last time you read an article or book, got to the end, and thought, “I wonder what question I could create now that would be answered by what I just read,”? I feel confident I know your answer.
Same idea. Have you finished a paragraph or article and stopped to summarize it for yourself? Maybe if it were an unusually challenging text for you. Then you might want to summarize every paragraph or so. But these texts are supposed to be just right for these kids. This isn’t likely to be the kind of thinking they are doing as authentic readers.
Some are definitely better.
At least, it’s better if the word is a challenging one for the reader. If that’s true, they might stop and think about what it could mean. If they already know what it means, this isn’t something they would do.
So how about math?
The tests include word problems so that there is a ‘real world’ context, rather than just naked numbers. But who would actually need to calculate this? Maybe 3 packages of gum to see if there is enough to share at a birthday party or in a class. But 57? Why would the store need to know how many pieces of gum this is?
Same. Why would Alex need to know how many minutes that is?
I get what the test is trying to assess. I don’t get why a kid would ever actually do this.
Yeah. This question is fine. But I’ve watched kids confuse pictures of coins when they do just fine with actual coins.
If we’re going to assess kids it would be better to do it really well. Sit down with a kid and have them count some coins. Show them the results of a survey and ask them how they could share it with others. Have a kid bring a book, read some of it, and share their thinking.
Of course, these are all things teachers do regularly. But somehow that isn’t good enough.
(All of the above questions are released items from 3rd grade tests on the Virginia Department of Education website.)