Monday, March 14, 2011

Standardized Tests - What's in it for the Students?

Test scores are being lauded as the gold standard of measuring school and teacher effectiveness, at least according to some. The education reformers of today continually point to test scores as measures of our weakness as a system and herald test scores as our brass ring to grasp. Schools have been giving tests to students for decades, and their usefulness as been sketchy at best. Yet, for some reason, education reformers today are wanting test scores to lose their sketchy reputation and save us from the wasteland that education has become today.

Questions abound about the use of tests in schools - are they measuring learning? Are they cost effective? Do they measure teacher effectiveness? But the one question I don't hear anyone asking is why should students do well on these tests in the first place? What is the motivation for a third, eighth or tenth grader to do well on a standardized test? Why should our students care at all about how well they do on these tests? To me, this is the issue at the heart of why it is dangerous to use test scores as the brass ring.

I have mixed feelings about tests and test scores. My experiences with standardized tests and their scores range from positive to negative. On the positive side, I taught AP classes for most of my classroom career, and the standardized tests at the end of those courses largely defined my success as an AP teacher. I never had 100% of my students pass the AP Exam, but they did do well each year. I always felt the AP Exam was a pretty fair measure of what my students knew about the course I taught, even though, inevitably, there were concepts on the Exam that I had not taught my students. There were too many terms and too many applications of those terms to ensure that students were exposed to each and every possible concept they might encounter on the Exam. So, I never tried to cover everything in my class. Instead, I taught the material I was supposed to teach. I also spent time on their mental preparation for the Exam, assuring them that they would encounter terms and applications that they had never heard of before. I taught them not to panic. I taught them how to do their best even if they didn't know all the answers.

On the negative side, each year, my state has given high stakes graduation exams each year since I was a student in school. In order to graduate, you had to pass some or all of the content-based tests given in highly structured and monitored environments at your school. Now, I'll say the state does all it can to help students pass these tests. The tests are untimed. Students can take the tests up to nine times before graduation. Seniors who haven't passed certain parts of the exam are assigned to intensive classes designed to remediate them. To teachers and students alike, these tests are a bother at the least and a nightmare at the most. The tests are bothersome in that they take at least fifteen instructional days out of the year for students who must take every possible opportunity to take the tests. The tests are a nightmare for parents of students who struggle to pass them. The irony always occurs that students can pass their courses in high school but not pass the graduation exams. In this scenario, students don't graduate with a diploma, but a certificate of attendance. They must report back to their high school to take the graduation exams until they pass in order to get a diploma and get on with their lives.

In both of these testing circumstances, the student's motivation to do well on the test is at the heart of their success. For the vast majority of student taking either type of test, passing the test is not in question. Most students will do well on AP Exams or graduation exams even if they "phone it in." They do well because they try. It can actually take more effort to do poorly on these exams! The prospect of sheer boredom for the 2 to 4 hours of the test is enough to motivate students to at least try to answer the questions. If you look at the test data, you will see that most students actually do very well on these tests.

But these aren't the students education reformers and conscientious educators are concerned about. The students we are all concerned about are those who do not do well, and these students often fit into certain demographics. They come from difficult home environments. They have had bad experiences in school. They identify with stereotypes that predict failure in school. They fall into the achievement gaps we all are horrified by. The question of the day is why aren't these students doing well? The fingers are pointing at teachers right now, but no one is asking these students why they think they aren't doing well. And, to me, that is a big oversight.

For my AP students, some students would do well because they wanted college credit. Some wanted to do well because they wanted to beat other students and have bragging rights. Others wanted to please me. Still others didn't want to disappoint their parents, who paid money for them to take the tests. But I always had students who could have done well and didn't. Their reasons were as varied as the do-gooders. Some punted the test because their college of choice didn't accept the scores for the course - or the college accepted a score so high, the student didn't feel she could achieve it. Others didn't want to take the course in the first place (perhaps they were pushed into it by their parents or peer pressure). Still others didn't feel as though they needed the credit.

For my graduation exam students, some students wanted to do well because it was embarrassing in some circles to fail. No student wanted to admit to others that he was in remediation for not passing what was viewed as an "easy" test. Others wanted to do well because they knew the stakes and rose to the occasion. But others just didn't care whether they graduated or not. To some, it was cool or funny to be a slacker and fail. Some were going to work for their uncle's business whether they had a diploma or not. Some were doing so many drugs that they came to school high and were likely just in school to retain their customer base. Others came to believe it didn't matter whether they graduated or not - they were doomed to poverty and worthlessness anyway. Others, though, busted it to pass and missed it by "just this much" every time.

What about the current education debate is getting to the heart of these motivational challenges? Who is asking what's in it for students? What do students get out of doing well on these tests? Even with the AP Exams, where the benefits of passing are clear and financially sound, students choose to punt. Even with graduation/high-stakes tests, where the benefits are also clear, students choose to punt. But what about the reading tests we give to fourth graders and the math tests we give to eighth graders? What are the motivators for them to do well? Do we really expect a 10 year old or a 13 year old to care enough about school and teacher to do well? We are asking immature, underdeveloped brains to make very adult choices about doing well on a test that means absolutely nothing to them. What are the risks of failure? What are the benefits of passing? These kids can't stop themselves from touching or spitting on each other. Yet, we ask them to buy into the patriotism of school pride or the integrity of best effort for effort's sake in order to do well on these tests. We are asking kids who aren't mature enough to be conscientious about tying their shoes to make sure they do well so their teacher can continue to have a job.

I had one student whose ticket to ride for college was already stamped. She had earned an athletic scholarship to her favorite Division 1 school. Her housing deposits had been paid, and her roommate was already planning their room colors. So on the AP Exam that year, she didn't attempt any of the free response questions, and she said she made a nice picture out of her multiple choice bubbles. The frustrating part for the school was that we had helped her pay for her multiple AP Exam fees, and she punted each and every one of them she took. Even though over 75% of my students earned the highest possible scores on the AP Exam that year, should I be deemed ineffective because this student decided to punt the test? She didn't consider me or my school's reputation for one moment. She didn't show any gratitude for the school's generosity in paying her Exam fees. She had gotten what she wanted out of my class and the school, so she was fine with not earning that credit.

To me, we need to find out what students want to get out of our classes and our schools. Do they want the diploma? Is just passing all they are hoping for? Or do they want to be the top of the class? Do they want to impress their friends or their teachers? Do they want scholarships or do they just hope to get out of school as quickly as possible? Their answers to these questions will determine how well they do on our standardized assessments. To get at these answers, we have to build long-term relationships with our students in order for them to trust us enough to give us the answers. We can't build long-term relationships with teachers who are only committed for two years. We can't build an understanding of our students' motivational needs if we crowd our classrooms beyond reasonable capacities.

The calls for a fluid workforce and big class sizes are driving school towards being much like a corporation that has gotten too big to know their customers. Mom-and-pop stores know their customers and can tailor their services to the customer. They are part of the community and can adapt to the up-to-the-minute changes of the community. Customer service is personal and direct. Big corporations cannot afford to tailor their services to each and every idiosyncratic customer need. They cannot make quick changes in how they do business in order to keep the customers coming. They react slowly and often with callousness to the individual's needs.

I'd rather have a mom-and-pop school culture than a corporate one. I'd rather take the time get to know my students than be overly efficient. It is possible to be fiscally prudent and attentive to students' needs at the same time, but we have to ask the right questions. Right now, we are only pointing fingers. We are not even asking questions. We need to ask what would motivate our students to do well on tests, if that is what we are going to use. That would mean sitting down and asking them what they need or want out of our schools. Try doing that in a class of 35.


Amy said...

I think that there has to be some sort of "student achievement" connection to teacher evaluations. However, I don't think our current standardized tests are a good judgment of student achievement. Also, you make a good point that we have to consider where the students stand in the entire process. I wish I knew how to solve this issue!

Amy Fineburg said...

I don't have a problem with wing held accountable for my student's achievement. If none of my AP students passed the Exam, I should hold some responsibility for that. But to ask me to shoulder ALL the responsibility for that without considering the other factors that may have contributed to my students' performance is unfair and wrong. Do we hold the sales clerk responsible if a customer does not take up the suggestive sell offer?

There are ways to measure the students' goals, motivations and perceptions about classes and school. But no one is interested in working these assessments into the evaluation models. Why not? I fear that the motivation behind all this reform rhetoric is not about leaving no child behind or racing to the top. It's about money and politics. That's what worries me.

Amy said...

I completely agree that the teacher should not be held TOTALLY responsible for a student's achievement, because there are always other factors that attribute to that achievement.

There is a whole lot of politics in education. I have come to see just a little of that in my current position, and I imagine it gets much worse!