Let's Keep It All a Secret
The lastest scandal regarding the PARCC test in New Jersey relates to how the testing company, Pearson, has apparently been monitoring social media sites to see whether students are discussing the test. Of course, testing material is highly secret, so for students to share information about the questions and reading selections is against the rules.
I am both angered and yet not surprised by this news. But there is a larger issue lurking under the service of this invasion of students' privacy and that relates to the monster of this secrecy.
The only feedback students ever get from the test are their scores. They never find out which specific questions they got wrong or why. Teachers themselves also never get to see anything beyond the scores and perhaps some kind of data sheet that supposedly shows what skills students mastered and what skills they got wrong. Again, they never get to see the questions and answers for any further analysis.
So, did student John get question number ten wrong because he couldn't read, or was it because he thought the country was quiet despite what the reading material suggested? *See my March 11 blog for an explanation of this* What good is the test as a teaching tool if teacher and student have no idea of where things went wrong or right?
I have to admit, when I was teaching test prep, one of the more interesting aspects was the learning that went on and the insight into student thinking processes as we discussed specific example questions and how students would answer them. The analysis of the questions, the methods of choosing the correct answer, and discovering the various thinking paths we might travel to get the wrong answer was far more important than the answer itself. More than once, as a teacher, I found myself telling a student, "You know, the answer you chose made perfect sense, but it's not the one the test maker wanted. Let's try to figure that out." Both students and I could often justify a wrong answer with good clear logic as we sorted out the secrets of "beating the test" by deciding just what the test makers wanted us to say instead.
Learning needs feedback. Learning needs discussion. A wrong answer ignored teaching nothing. A wrong answer discussed and analyzed teaches.
But these tests aare kept under lock and key. No one, not even the teachers are supposed to see the questions and materials. No one is ever supposed to discuss the materials either.
Back to question number ten. John got that one wrong. Does he or the teacher ever find out why? Does he learn anything from his mistake? Impossible. Question number ten is a deep, dark secret no one must ever see. Likely John will make the same mistake next time he's confronted with that question again or one just like it. He'll never get the chance to see where he went astray. How much more might he learn if he and his teacher were able to talk it over?
Considering the huge cost of developing these tests, I can understand the desire for security. Make a test, keep it secret, and use it for years. Don't let anyone know what's on it so you don't have to rewrite or replace any of the materials. Protect your profits.
Despite was anyone might say, these tests do not offer any real learning experiences. Perhaps, at the end of a child's education, pure evaluation without any feedback might be OK, but at the lower grade levels?
We hide the secrets by calling them "assessments." We spend hours of valuable classroom learning time "assessing" and less and less teaching/learning.
It's about time we re-evaluated our whole perspective and decided what's really important. Testing of this kind is not a means to an end, but the end.
All the secrecy does nothing to promote good learning.