Sunday, February 14, 2016

Standardized Tests - Testing Students or Schools?

In the 1960's and 1970's, standardized tests were used to test students.  In the 2000's, they were used to test schools.   All hell broke loose.

A lot of ink has been spilled about "No Child Left Behind" and standardized testing in the last few years.   Under the "No Child" law, schools became obsessed with standardized testing, as the results of these tests would determine how much funding the schools got, or if teachers got raises or bonuses - or even whether the schools should be closed.

Not surprisingly, some schools, such as in Atlanta, started a wide-scale cheating organization, so that teachers, and more importantly, administrators, would get raises and bonuses.   Teachers would have "erasure" parties where they would erase the last page of each test (with the hardest questions) and replace them with the correct answers.   A lot of people went to jail over that - some for a long time.

But it was a predictable outcome of a horrible Republican policy.   They created a system of economic rewards that was impossible to play straight - so everyone cheated.   The policy was based on the flawed assumption that all students have equal innate abilities and that if they are not learning then it must be the school's fault.

But as any observer of human nature can tell you, some people are just cold stone stupid.   And the more stupid a person is, the more likely they are to be poor.   And poor people tend to live in poor neighborhoods (bootstrapping poverty, but since they are stupid, they fail to see this) and go to poor schools, which perform poorly.   You can "incentivize" them all you want, they will never get good grades on average.   Yes, a few will do very well, unless their peers bully them into suicide or pressure them into joining a gang.

But stupid is as stupid does.  And instead of punishing schools for "failing" perhaps a better alternative is to structure the schooling to the student, and not the student to the schooling.

Let me explain what I mean.

When I was in school, we had standardized testing, with "SRA" tests going out to Procter, Iowa, to be graded, just as in the Simpson's cartoon above.   From this testing, we were tracked into different levels of learning - A, B, and C-levels.   The A-level students were college-bound and were given more to learn and the best teachers.  We were expected to take AP courses and go on to excel in college.

The B-level students were expected to go to college, community college, trade school, or go into business.   They took more practical courses ("business math") and perhaps even vocational training.

The C-level students were the hard cases - kids who could not read a sentence, much less a book, by grade 9, or indeed even by graduation.   The goal here was to find something for them to do as a career and try to keep them out of jail.    Vocational training was probably the best bet.

Now, a lot of people had a problem with this tiering of students.   Some said it was unfair, as students were "tracked" and thus determinations were made at an early age that could affect their whole career.  If a kid is pigeon-holed as "dumb" early on, he might be sent off to the C-level, when he should be in B-level or A-level  - with disastrous results.

Indeed, this almost happened to me, as some of my elementary school teachers thought I was retarded.  In Kindergarten, they handed us a "ditto" showing different sets of objects to color in.  "Color the objects that are the same".   One line had a fire truck, a taxi, a tractor, and a tomato.   Given that it was color-based, I assumed the correct answer was "firetruck and tomato" as both are red, and I colored them in brilliantly.   But the teacher thought I was retarded, as the "correct" answer was "fire truck, taxi and tractor" as these were all vehicles.   Frankly, I thought they had very little in common, particularly the tractor.

In the 4th grade, a teacher thought I should be "held back" because I could not memorize the multiplication tables.  7x7 still gives me fits, but this never stopped me from taking three semesters of Calculus, Differential Equations, and Number Theory.   As it turns out, there is a lot more to "maths" than memorization, although the half-wit 4th grade teacher we had was convinced that mathematics began and ended with memorizing things.  Indeed, in her world, memorization was the key.   History was nothing more than names and dates to be memorized, instead of actually analyzing what happened and how it affects us today.

In both cases, my Mother resisted efforts to "set me back" and I suppose that was the key - parental involvement.  The other thing that saved me was....standardized testing.   While my school performance was somewhat lackadaisical (a 5th grade report card recites, "Robert is a smart boy and could do well, if he ever learned to apply himself" - very prescient!) my standardized testing scores were always very high.   

So I went on the "A" level track, although I always got "B's" in the A-level courses, particularly after I started smoking a lot of pot in Junior high.   But getting B's in the A-level courses was better than straight-A's in the B-level courses, which so many of my friends did, which got them on honor roll, although not college-bound.

All the controversy about "tracking" aside, though, I think it was a better system than what is being tried today.  The Republicans are pushing this fiction that "all kids can succeed" and "no child should be left behind" and thus the idea of "mainstreaming" all students together is being pushed.  The end result is that the former "C-level" student feels like even more of an idiot in class, as everyone else "gets" the material that is over his head.  The "A-level" students are bored by the pace of class, which by necessity is "dumbed down" to B-level at least.

In the name of equality and fairness, we have insured that everyone gets a shitty education.   Oh, but we all have self-esteem!  And safe spaces.  And bullshit - moreso than when I was in high school.

Standardized testing back then was used to test students not schools.  And the end result, although it had its flaws, tended to tailor education to the student, rather than vice-versa.   Identifying the students at-risk is not a bad idea, but a good one.   They need different classes more in line with their skills and intelligence - classes that will better prepare them for life.   And there is nothing wrong with this.  Not everyone is cut out to go to college.  Some people end up selling used cars.  Someone has to.

Today, we use standardized tests to test schools and not surprisingly, the schools in rich communities do well, not just because they are better funded, but because wealthier people tend to be smarter people who have smarter children, books in the home, and whatnot.  Of course, you can't say that today without being accused of being "elitist".

But in a perverse way, we end up punishing the poor by saying their schools suck because their students don't test as well.   And the way we proposed "fixing" this was not to improve these schools or provide specialized education for less-able students, but to punish the schools by taking away their money.

And we wondered why this didn't work.

Standardized testing has a place in schools - not to test the schools, but to test the students.   It can tell an administrator which students - regardless of background, income, race, or gender - would be better served by a college-prep education, and which might be better served by more remedial education or vocational training.   Both groups of students end up with a better education and better life opportunities as a result.

Fortunately, No Child Left Behind - one of George Bush's signature accomplishments - has now been deemed an utter failure.    It appears some sort of reform is on the horizon.   Perhaps we can go back to the old days of standardized testing - when we tested students, and not their schools.  Perhaps.