Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So How Does the Test Work?

Or Does It?

Walter Stroup, an education professor at the University of Texas, challenged the validity of Pearson's standardized tests in Texas over a year ago. His point was that the tests did not really measure student learning but rather students' test taking skills. There's a lot more to his arguments and if you do a Google search for his name you can find a number of well written articles explaining his testimony before the Texas legislature and the facts behind the story far better than I can.  Walter Stroup Challenges Testing

My experience tends to agree with Professor Stroup.  When I was teaching, and preparing students for the high stakes HSPA test, I began to realize that what students really needed to pass was not an education in English language skills, but rather an education in how to beat the test.
School Set Clip Art
I, myself, had gotten pretty good at it. After that little episode back in elementary school where I learned that what I knew mattered less than what the test writer wanted me to choose as the correct answer, I'd scored high on nearly every standard test I ever took. I won the "Betty Crocker Homemaker" award in high school based on a standardized test, and believe me, I am far from a skilled homemaker. I was always in the upper percentile when standardized test scores were released.

I had a good friend who was even better at tests than I was, and I remember once when we performed an experiment with a standardized test. This was not a high stakes tests, but rather an "occupational choice " test that was supposed to help students decide what job field they should pursue based upon answers to various questions about their preferences. That day, I decided I'l like to spend my time outdoors. After all it was a nice day. At that point in my life, I pretty much had decided I really wanted to be an English teacher, but the"imp of the perverse" was at work.  I answered every question leading to some kind of "back to nature career," even though, more than once, I wasn't really being honest.

My friend decided he was going to take the opposite approach and answer every question absolutely honestly.  Do, in one case he chose violin player over astronaut, and then later chemist over dancer. He just let his wide preferences free and really tried to pick his favorites out of all the choices.

Several weeks later the test results came back. Sure enough, I think I was informed I might want to be a forest ranger. My friend? He'd failed. (Well, you couldn't really fail, but his test results were invalid) He was going to have to take the test again to get the required score.

Now, that test meant nothing in the larger scheme of things except that if proved the point that in the end a standardized test is not always a valid evaluation tool of anything except what the test is designed for.

So, what are tests like PARCC designed for? To evaluate what a student has learned? No. Supposedly to evaluate students' skills. Can they read? Can they answer questions about a piece text? And can they understand exactly what the test writer means by the question and what the test writer has decided is the correct answer.

Usually, it goes like this. For a multiple choice question with four possible answers, two really can be discarded, leaving two possible correct answers. Of those two, one is a trap and the other one is correct.

To pick the correct answer, the student needs to uncover the trap and choose the other answer. Sometimes that's easy. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes, even on the practice tests we had a school to use for classroom training, I, as a teacher who'd scored nearly perfect numbers on my SAT's, would puzzle over the choices and come up with the wrong answer. It didn't happen often, fortunately, and more often I could explain why the "right" answer was the "right" answer, but it was a frustrating experience when it did.

After a while, I developed a pretty steep learning curve of my own and managed to discriminate between answer choices well enough and conquered the secrets of the HSPA.  Ultimately, I developed reading skills not so much to read the text material presented in the test, but rather to read the questions cautiously enough to sort out just what answer the test writer wanted.  In essence, I became a good test taker and that is what I taught my students.

I had great success. Now, mind you, I was teaching the "honors" classes, so my students were pretty skilled to start off with, so that helped a lot. But if my evaluation as a teacher would have been based upon those test scores, I would have hung my head in shame. During those weeks of test preparation, I 'd hardly taught a thing about the beauty of the English language, or the wonders of literature, or the great pleasure of truly creative writing (more on that later). Nope, all I'd done is equipped my students with test taking skills.

And, in the end that's all that mattered for them to succeed.

And, after all, as Professor Stroup suggests, that's all they really needed to succeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment