Standardized March Madness

March MadnessMarch brings with it two education rituals: college becomes young adults trying to get an orange ball through an iron circle, and K-12 public education transforms into students filling in small circles of multiple choice questions. The month-long NCAA tournament is viewed as a pleasant and worthy distraction, while a few days of standardized testing is seen as an evil intrusion. Both seem to inspire a certain madness well beyond the actual stakes, and a lot of passionate yelling.

The complaints about standardized testing vary, but most of them originate from either a profound or deliberate misunderstanding of what standardized tests are supposed to measure. These complaints include painfully obvious critiques: answering multiple choice questions is not the same as communicating a love for poetry, and assertions that such tests are useless because “as a parent, I see my child as an individual who deserves a personalized education.” Nobody is arguing the other side of such platitudinal truisms. For these criticisms are both perfectly valid and yet they absolutely miss the point; they are airballs hurled without direction at the periphery of the public school system.

Tests are standardized not because anyone thinks that is the best way to gain deep insight into the many nuances of learning, nor because they provide a valuable insight to every specific kid, and certainly not under the belief they are the modern equivalent of a sonnet. Tests are standardized so they can be given to a large number of students to help policymakers, legislators, and administrators know what areas to evaluate further and where to focus resources. In 2012 over 490,000 kids in Colorado took the TCAP. The broader the test, the less helpful it will be for any specific student. To be blunt: particularly for the college-educated parent who already obsesses about their child’s development, this test is not about your child’s intellectual capacity. Please don’t take it personally.

Why do we do testing over such a large group of kids? Partly because Colorado spends over $5.3 billion in State and local monies each year on K-12 education (not counting Federal dollars). These dollars have been in decline, making it increasingly important that we have some idea of where they are being spent well, and where we might put them to better use. Colorado has state standards for each subject and grade level. If one believes in educational standards, it helps to measure them (and if you don’t believe in the public efficacy of standards, you should wield your displeasure equally to the FDA, EPA, USDA, and all other sorts of places). Standardized tests, as blunt an instrument as they are, remain the most effective method to get a wide and brief snapshot of academic performance across the state. For what other multi-billion dollar public program does one argue that it is in the best interest of the public to eliminate assessments?

One particularly vocal critic was so offended by the TCAP that she pulled her child out of public school altogether. And truth be told, that is a perfectly reasonable response. For standardized testing is not for the benefit of any individual child or family, it is instead part of the price one pays to participate in a public school system that attempts to serve all children equally. Private schools don’t use standardized tests not because they are somehow morally or intellectual superior, but because they don’t have the same need to measure a very large and diverse population.

What are the other criticisms of standardized tests? Well, usually some variation of the following:

Standardized tests take too much time.
The primary complaint is usually directed towards the mandatory state test (CSAP and its progeny TCAP), which are given to all students in grades 3-10. These tests take roughly 9 to 12 hours total, depending on the grade, but’s let be generous and take the high end, so assume every students spends a full 12 hours taking TCAP. State law mandates 1,080 hours of instructional time each year for secondary school. So TCAP testing consumes all of 1.1% of instructional time – significantly less than a number of other mandated non-instructional activities, and pales before the requirement (in DPS) that every teacher have five hours of planning time each week.

Indeed, Colorado is on the lower end of required school days overall – and yet the hordes clamoring for more instructional time never seem to appear. There is also an ironic juxtaposition that many parents who complain about the excessive time of TCAPs do so right before a week-long Spring break, which carves two to three times as much time out of the classroom and seems not to rankle them at all.

Standardized tests are not always accurate.
One of the truths about assessments given to a large population is that there are errors with specific people. And there are plenty of individual anecdotes about instances where tests don’t accurately reflect a student’s ability. Yup. But we use tests all the time that have known errors, mostly in medicine where type I errors (a false positive) are commonplace. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people take a preliminary test that says they may have an illness or disease they in fact don’t have. Rather then argue to eliminate these tests, we use them as a starting place and perform a more in-depth diagnosis to get an accurate assessment. Likewise, standardized tests are not meant as the final word on any specific kid, but they can and should be used as an entry point to learn more. If one’s child tests as not proficient, that means one should ask a lot more questions, not sit by silently. Standardized tests are the starting point for assessment, not a final word.

Standardized tests discriminate against poor kids.
This is a fairly a new argument, and often presented wholly without evidence, but it oddly seems to be gaining traction. Like many large falsehoods, it reflects a small kernel of external truth: there is a clear correlation between poverty and proficiency (which, incidentally, we are only aware of thanks to standardized tests). But the idea that the tests don’t tell us anything beyond this relationship is a remnant from a bygone era. More and more, we are relying on standardized tests less for proficiency, and more to calculate student academic growth.

cogrowth2For example, look at the chart to the left (part of a worthwhile essay), which compares growth percentiles in reading to poverty levels for every Colorado school in 2011. See a pattern? Probably not, because there isn’t one. Growth models make it possible to do comparisons across demographic groups, breaking the constraints of simplistic arguments that equate testing achievement with income.

What this means is that standardized tests increasingly contribute useful data to arguments that the current education system often disenfranchises low-income communities, and helps identify places serving those kids well (and those that are not). Results from standardized tests are often cited as primary evidence in the struggle to get kids in poverty more access to resources — most predominantly in arguments in the pending Lobato case, and in the proposed school finance bill. Getting rid of standardized testing would be a tremendous step backwards in the fight to bring more equality to student outcomes.

Standardized tests are too high-stakes.
This is one of those memes that exists despite considerable evidence to the contrary, for the required TCAP (unlike the voluntary SAT or an AP exam) has no consequence to kids for doing poorly. It is not used for admission to any program, nor for grade promotion, nor does one lose credit for a class or subject in which one is not proficient. Indeed, unlike many other countries (such as Japan or the UK), the US is remarkably flexible in not determining the future academic path of students based on a standardized test at almost any level. Despite the determination to make “high-stakes testing” into a new boogeyman, the stakes here are illusory.

Nor, despite the rhetoric, is there a standard consequence to teachers – even those whose students repeatedly perform at extraordinary low levels that cannot be explained by demographic data alone. The academic growth of students is one of many measurements that can inform a teacher’s evaluation, but it is never judged in isolation. Indeed, even SB 191 — when enacted — mandates only that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation is student academic progress, and there is no requirement that TCAP testing be either the sole (or even a part) metric. There is no evidence of any teacher in Colorado who has lost a job solely due to standardized test data.

Schools are increasingly judged on student academic growth, but as one of several measures. And likewise, no school is automatically penalized for a test score, nor matter how low. Instead, a regular pattern of standardized tests provide an entry point for further investigation and a far more detailed analysis (such as a report from CDE). That is how it should be. Despite the heated rhetoric, there is no score which requires that a school automatically close, and most of the critics who complain about using test scores in school evaluation are usually against measurement for any reason at all. Quality, after all, is a measurement, and it is not standardized testing that bothers these critics as much as quality measurement of any kind.

Kids don’t care about standardized tests. Except when they care too much.
Critics make the points (sometimes in the same breath) that results from testing should not count precisely because kids have so little at stake that they don’t take the tests seriously; and also that kids take these tests too seriously to the point of undue anxiety. It’s hard to know what to do with these contradictory arguments, except to point out that there is probably some modest truth to both, neither which might be considered abnormal across a wide population. For there may be anecdotal cases, but there is no epidemic. Kids vary from apathetic to anxious on all sorts of activities, and we don’t forbid public presentations, PE class, or trips to the dentist. It is remarkably hard to eliminate the wide breath of normal human behavior over a half-million kids.

Parents already know how schools are doing.
As with any other large and diverse group, the quality of schools vary. And in truth, schools — and yes even districts — are not always honest about how well they are preparing their students, particularly for low-income families who may lack the skills to assess the quality of education their children are receiving. Many are the stories of Colorado’s children who worked diligently to get their high-school diploma, only to find out that they were completely unprepared for basic college courses or the skills of the modern workforce. Parents too often believe that because their child is advancing one grade each year, that they are academically at grade level. The greater shame here is not that TCAP exists, but that there are still so many schools for whom it clearly shows that basic proficiency remains an elusive goal.

There is no reason to use standardized tests, especially if you want your child to have a professional career like law or medicine.
Ok, so almost no one makes this claim. Why not? Well, because lawyers, doctors, financial analysts and many other professions make ample use of standardized testing. And they do it much like the TCAP – passing the bar (or even doing really well) does not mean in any way that you are destined to be a successful lawyer. But it does provide a minimum standard and a way for the profession to measure, over time, the capacity and ability of a large group of its students.

Most critics of standardized testing see it primarily through the filter of their own child (or their child’s peer group). That’s human behavior. But these are not the vexing concerns that confront the legislators and administrators who use standardized testing to inform policy and practice. The apprehension and disgust that one’s child is forced to fill in bubbles pales next to the trials of an 18-year-old who suddenly realizes they are facing the career options available to someone who only reads at an 8th grade level, or the high-school graduate proudly displaying their diploma who finds out that they are unable to pass the required test for admittance not to Amherst, but just to the Army.

The primary casualties of our public education system are not those whose concern is the discomfort of standardized tests. So the next time one hears a complaint about the uselessness of the TCAP, be reminded how very lucky you are indeed if it is of no use to you whatsoever.

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