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Test bashing: time to end it.
Mar 21, 2010
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Educators familiar with my work may be puzzled or irritated by my recent article in Educational Leadership entitled Why We Should Stop Bashing Tests - but I hope it gets everyone talking and thinking. 

I have spent the last year looking at all the released items from various states that release all or most of past tests. I narrowed my search to those states that not only released tests but presented the results in user-friendly ways, with good item analysis. I ended up highlighting the results from Massachusetts, Ohio (Grades 3 - 8), and Florida. My conclusion? We protest too much. All the difficult items require understanding, not unthinking recall of factoids - especially in relation to reading and core mathematical ideas like the Pythagorean Theorem.
Here is a sample from the article:

It is of course a common lament: “Oh, those standardized tests! If it weren’t for them...” But what happens if you actually look closely at all the released test items and student performance data available from states that provide them – especially Massachusetts, Florida, and Ohio where the data is rich and revealing? Your opinion may be a changin’. In fact, one test item (and results on it) should stick in our craw: this Massachusetts question involves the lyrics to the very tune mentioned – a song dear to me as a child of the ‘60s and as a musician. Here is the test question, from the 2008 MCAS 10th grade English test. The student sees all the lyrics to The Times They Are A Changin’, and is then asked this question: 


Based on "The Times They Are A-Changin'," why does the speaker most likely single out "senators, congressmen" and "mothers and fathers"?


Here are the four choices:


A. They understand the problems of society.

B. They represent an outdated set of values.

C. They are the most open to change.

D. They are role models for the speaker.            


Well, we “better get swimmin’ or we’ll sink like a stone...” in education – because only 58% chose the correct answer, B.  Astonishingly, 19%  chose A, 12% chose C, and 11% chose D. In other words, over 40% of 10th graders think the lyrics mean the opposite of what they really do. Not only are the ‘60’s over, but it seems like a huge chunk of our students cannot even make the most basic sense of a biting song lyric.


This result is not an aberration, I am sorry to report. What thus should also be a changin’ is our attitude toward test results. Over and over, in looking at fully-disclosed tests and results where they exist, I find that far too many of our students do poorly on questions requiring basic inferences, at all grade levels. Students are especially weak at drawing conclusions from non-fiction pieces of writing:  on average, across all 3 states, only about 60 percent of our students can identify the main idea or the author’s purpose related to reading passages...

Here is a similar example from Massachusetts in a 3rd grade item:


2008, QUESTION 16 - Grade 3, English Language Arts

Read the sentence from paragraph 6 in the box below.

"I have a question that I ask myself as I write: Why does the reader want to turn the page?”


Why does Joanna Cole most likely ask herself the question?


13% A.

to keep readers from being confused


62% B.

to make the book interesting to readers*


15% C.

to remember all the information for the book


10% D.

to make the writing long enough to become a book






Overall, these are sobering results, and not so easily explained away as artifacts of testing as many critics of tests would have us believe. We all have to read non-fiction and make inferences as adults, for professional, political, commercial, and personal reasons. Yet, the results across states and grade levels reveal that a large minority cannot do so. (By the way, why do we ask kids to read so much fiction, especially beyond Grade 2?).


The math results are arguably even more galling. By any dispassionate measure, math teachers in America are not getting the job done – especially at the high school level – as has been shown for decades on NAEP and TIMSS. But the state tests show the problem clearly, too. On every HS geometry test, for instance, students do poorly on questions that require students to, first, realize the need to use; then, apply the Pythagorean Theorem – despite the fact that this is arguably one of only two or three theorems anyone needs to remember from the course!


 The entire article can be found in the March 2010 issue of Educational Leadership.

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Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 found comments.
Posted by: Joe Willis
Feb 18, 2015
I hear the idea behind the article, that we can learn things from the standardized testing about what students are not learning. Unfortunately, the tests provide little information about how to reach these students. We need to change how we evaluate learning so we can provide usable feedback to students and test don't provide that.
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