Saturday, January 26, 2013

End of Level Testing?????

Some thoughts on the End of Level Testing in World History:

Here is the perfect way to motivate students to study for the End of Level Bench Mark Test.  It is a simple method which reflects the end of level testing paradigm.  All students who received a score above the District average will receive the grade they have earned for the term.  However, if their score is below the district average, they get an F as their quarter grade.  When I presented this idea to my students, they were dismayed.  They protested that it wasn’t fair, that judging their entire performance on 50 questions for which they did not know how to specifically prepare was unjust.  I replied – get used to it. Of course, I would not think of actually mistreating my students in this way, but I am troubled that the District Assessment does exactly that to the school, to me, and to my students.

Here are some of my objections to the “End of Level Bench Mark Review”.

1.       I have no way of knowing or reason for trusting the scholarship or validity of the test.  In the vast content of history, from Big Bang to Renaissance, who can accurately pick what is most worth knowing.  Even more disturbing to me, how can I possibly know that the person who wrote the questions actually understands “history” in the same way I, as my students’ teacher, do.  How can I know these teachers’ choice of answers is even correct?    I find a lot of errors taught in classrooms and much of what passes for fact is actually opinion.  Let me give a few examples.  In teaching the causes of the Civil War, I have heard very well educated and studied teachers claim that slavery was not the cause of the war.  They even go on to quote Lincoln and others to support a position that the War was fought to save the Union or push some economic position. But other instructors point out that secession was motivated by the determination to preserve slavery, or that economic tension was caused by a slave based, plantation economy.  I am quite confident one could shark up documented support for the idea that the Civil War was caused by “Global Warming”.   A second example might be the conflict between Jews and Romans in the 1st century AD.  Was the conflict based on Roman greed and aggression or did the Romans act compassionately and justly to end the persecution of Greek pagans who were terrorized by fanatical Jewish sects determined to purge the “Promised Land?”  I could provide endless examples on almost every subject outlined in the prep guide provided by the District.  How can these dichotomies of cause and effect be satisfactorily sampled by multiple choice questions crafted by persons with their own bias and no idea of what other teachers are presenting to their students?  It is impossible for a classroom teacher to know what view of History will be the basis of the questions.  These will be questions crafted by high school teachers, impelled by their own personal opinion and bias, who happen to sit on the District Test Development Committee.  A student might actually choose what they have been taught as the right answer and because they are at odds with the opinion of the test builders be penalized by the predilection of the test makers..

2.       Multiple choice questions cannot honestly sample a student’s knowledge.  It is like assessing the Sistine Celling by examining paint chips.  Even more troubling is the practice of crafting distractors that are tricks.  Trick questions do not assess student knowledge of any subject.  I have never seen the test, I have no way of knowing if it is valid at even the most basic level, and yet I am expected to teach my students how to choose answers I do not know, to questions I cannot imagine. 

3.       Teaching to and reviewing for the test, is by nature instruction on the most basic level and is not a worthy use of the 90, 90 minute periods one has in class over a school year with one’s students.  Their education is compromised in order to gin up statistics which bureaucrat and college researchers can tout.  Meanwhile, the most important part of History Class is stinted.  A significant goal of a survey course in World History should be to spark a lifelong love of the study of History in a student.  As students examine the universal truths revealed in History, and become excited about seeking for them, they can develop the wisdom that is requisite for self-government.  But, time and time again, I am forced to compromise my efforts to share the truly valuable in order to prep my students for a test, the content of which I can only guess at, and which does not cover much of what I consider truly valuable for my students to learn.   In my own classes I have had to sacrifice book reports and in class enrichment activities in order to review for a 50 question multiple choice quiz that will gobble up one of their precious 90 minute classes in waiting for a computer screen to advance to the next question.

4.       The multiple test cramming process necessary to prep for tests is directly contrary to teaching strategies presented in the District Refresh training.  We are encouraged to teach to higher learning skills, emphasizing critical thinking and reasoning, but are tested on the lowest level of learning.

5.       The testing mechanism – a computer lab – has proven unreliable.  In the 2013 World History test, my students spent more time waiting for the “next” question than in giving responses.  And for several, after an hour of key clicking, the test disappeared from the desk top and no one (including the school and District STS) knew how to get it back so they could finish it. Now they, and I, will be judged on a test average skewed by a computer glitch.

6.       I have received no meaningful feedback on the test.  I have no comparative data on my student’s performance on the 2012 tests.   It has been a year, and I do not know how my students did in comparison to the district average or how I did in contrast to my fellow teachers, either at my or other high schools in the district.  How can I know weather I am doing a “good” job teaching if I have no way of comparing my efforts with any legitimate standard?  Who knows?  I may be ruining my student’s education and no one will tell me or protect them.

7.       The validity of scores on these tests is questionable.  I have heard of teachers who read the questions from the computer screens while their students are testing and then share information with the classes that test later.  There is no way to insure that scores are fairly earned from class to class and teacher to teacher. 

8.       AP Students do not (if their teacher so chooses) take the test.  This is preposterous on many levels.  First, it culls from the school and district pool the brightest students, thus giving a false assessment of our student’s capabilities.  Even more troubling to me is the excuse for not requiring testing offered in defense of AP teachers who choose not to have their students involved.  They claim that AP classes do not have time to prepare students for or to waist on testing.  If the test is valid a study tool, it should be equally beneficial to both AP and “lesser” students.  More importantly, AP Students, the self-selected best and brightest, are the ones who should have the least need of classroom time for instruction.  They should be the ones who would suffer the least harmed by having two full days of class activity and instruction ripped out of their course schedule.  

9.       Special Ed. Students and Students with Accommodations are neither accommodated nor given special consideration in the administration of the test.  Students who by definition have special needs are not given special options; rather, they are required to face testing conditions which would not be permitted to the classroom teacher.  Their scores are lumped in with those of other students without the distinct adjustments to which they are entitled. 

10.    There is enormous wasted expense in the crafting, administering, and monitoring of these tests.  District level personnel, who could better spend their time working with teachers in need of support, are devoting time and resources to this bogus process. This is a gigantic waste of money!

11.    The stated goal of the test – to improve teacher performance – is compromised.  It is claimed that there are teachers, (I was even told, mostly in Jr. High Schools), who are not teaching the desired content and that these tests will somehow motivate them to cover the appropriate material.  I am forced to ask why teachers who are, and have for decades have been, teaching core standards are forced to weaken their instruction in order to rectify the misbehavior of others.  First, I do not believe that a 50 point multiple choice test can produce the desired effect on those who are not teaching.  Second, District resources and personnel time could be better spent working directly with teachers who fail in their responsibilities.  Their detection and correction is the job of Principals and district administrators and can only be done on a one-on-one basis.  Thus, teachers who have been doing a “good” job are harmed while substandard teachers are not assisted.

There are many more difficulties with this process.  I point out that attempting to dictate a uniform Social Studies curriculum has been wisely rejected for years.  Unlike English, Science, or Math, there are not specific, multiple choice testable ideas in History.  Even more importantly, the vastness of information relating to the 7,000 year history of man, together with the practically infinite prehistory of the world, make it impossible to cover more than a tiny fraction of the subject.  There is NO reasonable way to determine which crumbs from the feast of History MUST be ingested. 

Finally, let me point out that “studies show” American education is losing ground.  Perhaps it would be a valid interpolation of the data that end of level testing has been the cause of this decline.


Dan said...

I could not possibly agree with you more on this point. A whole hearted Amen to this post.

One thing, which I think is probably just a bit of a restatement of something you already said. I think it is much less important which bits and pieces of the last 7000 years are taught, as how they are taught.

Lysis said...


Yes indeed! I have had many wonderful teachers, and most of them were very different from each other. I hope there are ways to improve all teaching, and I hope there are ways to improve all students, but government mandated, one-size-fits-all testing is counterproductive.

Jamie said...

I am currently in the MENG w/Secondary Licensure program at Weber State University. I agree with your post 100%, but would also like to add that - as far as I can see - it does not work for literature, either. Who is to say whether someone should value the lessons to be learned from "current" novels like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, or if "classic" novels and stories such as Shakespeare's Hamlet and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities are more important?

In my opinion, the point of teaching these and other novels to students is not just so they can regurgitate the sequence of events which occur, but rather to encourage a higher order of thinking. If students can understand why someone acts as they do or why an author felt it important to write about a specific subject, if students can relate to a character's experiences and expand on why or why not it is important to know, then as a teacher, you have been successful. Ideas, thoughts, and opinions like this cannot be explained very well in timed tests, whether they are essays or multiple choice.

In my experiences as a student and as a pre-teacher, I feel like the pendulum has gone from one extreme - letting the students be free to explore what they want, and learn how they want - to the other - "government mandated, one-size-fits-all testing" as you put it. There needs to be a "happy medium" somewhere, a place where teachers and students can teach and learn more than how to take a test.

Lysis said...

I appreciate your comment, and I agree with you that many disciplines can find similar complaint with the standardized tests, particularly the multiple choice ones, that enables simple scouring and permits no nuance of opinion.

Might I suggest that the middle ground you are looking for is a style of learning where teacher and student come together to learn? Where teachers share what they know, and students work to master the information given to them in order to make it their own and build on that foundation for their own creativity and growth.

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