Monday, October 18, 2010

Re-standardizing the test

The master's thesis on which I'm making (glacially slow) progress is in educational policy. My specific interest is in adult education for imprisoned or formerly incarcerated adults, but there are plenty of factors that go into school kids growing up to be adults with criminal records and without high-school diplomas.

When I was still doing course work, I was part of a cohort of 12 other Master's level students in my program. Roughly half of my classmates were already school teachers, mostly in public high schools in Chicago. Since my experience is really only with nontraditional adult education, I appreciated their perspective. Essentially, they were trying to keep their kids from ever getting in to one my programs. I'm fine with that - it's the kind of work I wouldn't mind putting myself out of.

Any time the topic of standardized testing would come up, the tension in the room would escalate, and discussion would be uncomfortable at best. Every teacher has to deal with standardized tests now, and in many schools the students are subjected to high-stakes testing every two years at the least. I've read in the past about how some states make their tests as easy as possible so their schools aren't listed as "failing" - which is a slap-shod solution to a real school policy problem.

Now the state of Illinois is doing something different. The claim is that the ISAT test isn't less difficult, but a student's score can now be lower and still count as "proficient". I especially appreciate that one of the folks who is angered by the implication that Illinois could be manipulating the test - ("they'd have to be... lying to us") so more students will pass is a man whose job title is "director of research and assessment" for a school district. I'm fairly certain that's a position that didn't exist ten years ago.

I'm sure this is because I've worked in programs that don't receive government money, for the most part, but when we've used standardized exams such as the TABE , the purpose was to establish the adult student's base line of knowledge so the teacher had a starting point from which to work. I actually really liked the TABE - it was a good gauge of adult ability without being insulting in the "You can't really read good, so you must be stoopid" way that some literacy-level materials can be.

I can recall taking the California Achievement Test when I was in fifth grade. The CAT test, as we redundantly called it, was basically used as standardized-test-taking practice and as an evaluation of individual student abilities - much like the TABE is used with the adult learners I worked with. No teacher was going to be fired over CAT test scores, and it was something we took as kindergarteners and as fifth-graders... and that was it.

I looked up the CAT test, and it appears that it's now only used by homeschooling parents. I guess times have changed. And I guess even homeschoolers are taking standardized tests.

All this is to say that, like most educational-types, I'm not opposed to standardized tests as a whole. I think they can be a useful tool for both students and teachers. But they're almost never used properly - rather, test scores are used to exclude students from colleges and professional schools, to punish "failing" schools and teachers with drastic moves like replacing the entire staff, and - in my mind, this is possibly the worst part - to take up valuable instruction time with test drilling. When the most radical re-thinking of standardized tests is to make them harder to fail (but magically not "easier"), I can't help but think that post-prison education is a need that will be around in this country for a long, long time.

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