Teaching to the Test

At the beginning of this school year, I asked my fifth grade niece how she did on her fourth grade state assessments.  Without missing a beat, she proclaimed, “I got a high 3 in ELA, and I got a low 4 in Math.”  I asked her what the numbers meant: “What is the difference between a high 3 and a low 4?”  My niece, of course, did not know.  Why should she know?  Standardized tests measure a snapshot in time.  It is a picture of a student’s performance that could only be and will be captured only once on a certain particular day and a certain particular time.

Studies have been conducted that show various environmental factors could have an impact on student performance on any given day:  a student’s mood, the temperature in the classroom, the weather (sunny or cloudy), the lack of windows and light in the classroom, the proctor in the class, and/or the amount of rest the student had the day before.  The difference between a high 3 and a low 4 may not simply be attributed to academics.  The nuances between the two scores could just as easily be explained by environmental and social factors.

Making artificial distinctions between what raw score equals a 3 and what score equals a 4 does not help advance student learning.  After all, my niece never saw her exam and never received any feedback on what skills she needed to improve upon to become a better student.  It is evident that students do not learn from a methodology that advances the concept of “teaching to the test.”  The value currently placed on standardized tests is disproportionate to the educational benefit these exams may or may not present for a student.  When the educational value of a policy becomes dubious, then it is time to reflect and reconsider the policy itself.

What becomes clearer and clearer is the main purpose of these exams: compliance.  As an institution, schools comply with policy decisions made by lawmakers lest they run the risk of losing government funds.  This type of hierarchical, command and control system runs counter to 21st century skills that schools are trying to teach their students, i.e. collaboration, collegiality, professional discourse, and consideration of multiple perspectives.

Some parents and educators are recognizing that the new system of compliance, vis-à-vis standardized exams, is of dubious educational value.  They have signed onto a petition against high stakes testing, which can be found here:  http://wp.me/p1W339-5h.  If utilized properly, standardized tests can be useful diagnostic tools to help assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses.  However, disproportionately judging student performance by relying on an exam taken on a certain day at a particular time dismisses the wider scope of learning, which also must take into account the human factors that involve the learning experience.

Perhaps my niece will never know the difference between a high 3 and a low 4.  What she did know is that her scores were good enough to avoid summer remedial programs and was able to enjoy her summer as a nine-year-old.