Testing Issues (page 2)
Added to the shortcomings of the standards movement is the recent heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing to determine the achievement of the standards. Decades of work have highlighted the effectiveness of authentic assessments (portfolios, student exhibitions, scoring rubrics, etc.) as tools for informing teachers’ instructional practices and as methods for communicating to students and parents the knowledge that has been gained. However, the current practice in assessment is the standardized, norm-referenced test, consisting almost wholly of multiple-choice questions. It is problematic that policy makers would mandate the development of elaborate content standards only to couple such policies with low-level and narrow assessments (Dorn, 2007; Nichols & Berliner, 2007).
The long and troubled history of testing and test development in the United States was severely damaged by racism, which the test producers have yet to overcome (Berlak, 2000; Valdés & Figueroa, 1994). Standardized, usually multiple-choice, tests are preferred because they can be mandated by political leaders, be implemented, and deliver clear results. But, as in the case of positivism and reductionism (from which these tests come), they are measuring and evaluating only a small segment of the important learning goals of schools. Low-level tests do not measure human relations, respect, civic courage, and critical thinking, for example. Standardized testing is a political act that often forces teachers to change their teaching strategies (Perlstein, 2007). Teachers need to examine the limits of the testing processes and use classroom-based assessments to inform their teaching. In many states, including Texas, California, and Massachusetts, and in many school districts, including New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, standards and a test-driven curriculum have been used to reduce teachers’ professional choice and decision making.
The most basic failure of the testing/accountability model lies in its refusal to recognize that public education is far more than production; it includes, at a minimum, facts, concepts, generalizations, skills, attitudes, critical thinking, and citizenship. Thus, a business-production model, based on low-level, multiple-choice testing, measures only a small part of the important issues of schools in a democratic society (see Dorn, 2007; Perlstein, 2007; Renzulli, 2002). Meanwhile, governors and legislators committed to the testing movement ignore other parts of the business-production model, such as providing as much support, including tools, training, and technical assistance, as workers need.
Testing systems have grown in part because they are very profitable for the companies that produce and score these low-quality tests—companies that lobby the legislatures to establish testing systems. State funding for testing grew in Texas from $19.5 million in 1995 to $68.6 million in 2001 and at similar rates in other states (Gluckman, 2002; Perlstein, 2007). Bloomberg News estimated in 2006 that the testing industry makes over $2.5 billion per year (Gloven & Evans, 2006). Funding increases for testing and test preparation usually are matched by a reduction in funding for other classroom items such as textbooks, dictionaries, libraries, and teacher support. In spite of these large investments, without major improvements in the quality of testing and investments in teacher capacity-building, test-based accountability systems will not produce significant improvement in student achievement in high-risk neighborhoods (Kober, 2001; Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Popham, 2003).
Extensive evidence shows that the current testing emphasis has driven instruction away from the important issues of developing democratic and multicultural content, away from teaching critical-thinking skills, and away from developing citizenship and pro-democratic values (Neil, 2003; Renzulli, 2002). Available testing, particularly multiple-choice testing, is not the only form of assessment. Other assessment devices include teacher observations, rubrics, student presentations, and portfolios (Wood, Darling-Hammond, Neil, & Roschewski, 2007). These forms of assessment can be used to measure progress on goals of critical thinking and democracy and on important multicultural goals such as mutual respect.
Scores on most standardized skill tests actually tell us very little; they measure very imprecisely. Current objective tests measure whether the student can identify letters, words, and rhyming words, but they do not measure the ability to comprehend a paragraph or to write a creative essay. They measure skills and isolated facts rather than significant academic achievement. Tests are usually not actual measures of competencies but measures of isolated skills that can be drilled without improving the student’s education (Perlstein, 2007). Rather than investing more money in the current low-quality testing systems, we could develop appropriate and useful assessments, including those using computer technology, that would help the teacher. There are good uses for standardized tests. They should be short tests given frequently that assist the teacher in making decisions about individual students, teaching, and review. But that is not what is happening with testing in K–12 programs today.
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