Standardized Test Scores are Incompatible with Your School’s Equity Plan  

 
 
The primary goal of public education is to teach all children fairly.  


 
But since its inception, the system has never been set up to actually accomplish this.  


 
So these days you hear a lot of talk about fixing the problem – of how we can ensure students of color and other historically underserved children get the same high-quality education racially and economically privileged kids always have received.


 
This almost always concludes with two types of plan.  


 
First, there is the serious venture made up of things like increasing spending to meet student need, wraparound services, early intervention, reducing class size, redistributive justice and cultural competence – a plan that looks the reality in the face and makes bold attempts to come to terms with it. 


 
Then there is the cheap knockoff proposition – a buzzword-laden scheme where someone is trying to convince you their half hearted proposal is actually a solution to the very real problem of educational inequality. 


 
 
And the number one thing you can use to tell the difference between the two is this – standardized test scores


 
 
The first plan that is centered around actually fixing disparities makes no mention of test scores – or at least relegates them to obstacles. The second is built all around them – as an essential component of the overall scheme. 


 
 
This is because the second feel-good-accomplish-nothing plan is essentially performative.  


 
 
Therefore, it is constructed around standardized test scores as a metric of success.  


 
Planners think: We’re going to do A, B and C to make our schools more equitable. And how will we know we’re doing it right? We’ll use our standardized test scores! 


 
That’s not accuracy. It’s ostentation. These scores don’t demonstrate anything at all about equity. True, they purport to show readily apparent increases or decreases in academics.  


 
However, even this is an illusion.  


 
A rise or fall in test scores is not, in fact, based on authentic academic success but merely success at taking standardized tests designed for very different purposes.  


 
And anyone who understands the history of these types of assessments and how they still work will know that this mirage is built at the cost of genuine equity.  


 
In fact, the inequalities plaguing our public school system are due in large part to our national insistence that standardized test scores be the ultimate measure of success.  


 
So constructing your plan to fix this problem around one of its root causes is like claiming you can fix a sinking ship by drilling more holes in its hull.  


 
At best, it’s naive. At worst, it’s self-defeating and disingenuous.  


 
 
The problem centers around the difference between standardized tests and assessments created by classroom teachers. 


 
 
Both types of assessment are supposed to measure what students have learned. But not all learning is equal


   
For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how to make foie gras – something that would only come in handy at a high end French restaurant.


   
That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.  


   
The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.  


   
This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.  


   
When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.  


   
When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.  


   
New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.  


   
According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.  


   
If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.  


   
He writes:  

   “As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”  


   
Think about what this means.  


   
We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.  


 
This is important when it comes to equity.  


 
 
If we are guided in large part by standardized test scores, we aren’t guided by authentic learning. We’re guided by a false picture of learning. Therefore, the most effective way – perhaps the only practical way – of raising test scores is to teach directly to a specific test. And not only the test, but the specific version of the test being given that year.

So if we do somehow manage to raise test scores, we haven’t improved academics at all but a mere semblance of it. And thus the equity we might celebrate in such a situation would be just as false. 


 
You got a good score on the MAP test. Hurrah! But that doesn’t mean you know anything of real value except how to take this particular MAP test which, itself, will change after the next round of questions are field tested.


 
 
 
This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to educate in just this manner – to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests doesn’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction. 

And if we insist on evaluating the equity of our schools on these test scores, we will only make things that much worse. 


   
We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.  


   
That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.  


   
It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!  


   
It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. 


 
And let’s not forget where these tests come from


 
They were created in the 1910s and 20s by eugenicists to prove the supremacy of white Europeans over other racial and ethnic groups.  


 
While these original tests are no longer in circulation, the assumptions behind them are an essential part of our modern day standardized tests. 
 


The very method of question selection in today’s tests builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.  


   
According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial or ethnic minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.  


   
This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.  


   
So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.  


   
As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:  


   
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”  


 
This is incompatible with any enterprise aimed at increasing equity.  


 
You are engaged in a never-ending cycle of teaching to the test at the expense of authentic learning. You’re engaged in making minorities think like their privileged peers – of overcoming who they are just to be accepted into a game.

 
 
This is not education. It is assimilation, and it will always put the assimilated at a disadvantage to the majority – those they are being forced to imitate.  


 
Equity and standardized testing do not go together.  


 
 
They CANNOT go together. They are anathema.  


 
Those who suggest otherwise are either well-meaning fools or duplicitous malefactors.  


 
There is a multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry dependent on keeping us testing our kids.  


 
But we can no longer continue feeding that beast and pretending that we can somehow provide equity to our underserved children, too.  


 
We have to choose – equity or testing.  Fairness or unrestrained capitalism.


 
Do not believe anyone who tells you to support a plan built on both. 

It does not exist.


 

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Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.

 

The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.

 

This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.

 

When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.

 

When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.

 

New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.

 

According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.

 

If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.

 

He writes:

 

“As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”

 

Think about what this means.

 

We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.

 

That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.

 

It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

 

This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.

 

So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.

 

As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:

 

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

 

 

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Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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