Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Standards for thee, but not for me

In an earlier post, I commented about how I don't typically fit in with the assumed herd mindset of teachers. I will do so again here.

I am in favor of standards, and standardized testing.

This topic is so controversial that John Oliver spoke about it on his show on HBO, and testing reaches the pages of the local paper with some frequency. You can watch the clip from John Oliver's show here. I won't address his statements, as many of them are blatantly false or misconstrued, but it is mildly entertaining if like things to be oversimplified and/or glossed over.

My reasoning behind supporting standardized testing is simple: there are expectations and standards for goods and services provided, and students should be able to prove that they can meet those expectations. It is expected that when you get your oil changed, or your toilet fixed, or a filling put in a tooth, that the person doing it is competent. Why don't we expect that students meet published standards? As noted in a previous post, there is a lot going outside of school that can influence student success. We still, however, expect most, if not all students, to meet these standards.

A teacher friend of mine posted this to facebook. There are obvious limitations to testing, but at the end of the day, if you can't pass the driving test, you shouldn't have a license. 

When looking at websites of school districts or schools, they have statements saying that they focus on "high academic achievement" with goals of"100 % Graduation Rates". These mission statements or goals obviously touch on other topics beyond these, and frequently include flowery, unmeasurable objectives such as "helping students fulfill their potential" and "prepare students for satisfying and productive life".

Not directly related to these objectives, but still expected of schools, is that the students learn something. Like what are the three branches of the federal government. How to various levels of math. How to read and write. These are more easily measured (yet still not without controversy). If a student graduates high school and can't do various forms of math, write an essay, or analyze statements for accuracy, that's a problem. In fact, only 23% of eighth graders are considered to be proficient in civics. This is a problem.

Below are some outlined reasons in favor of testing:
1) Informs. When a student comes home from school and is asked how his or her day went, the usual response is "ok". If a parent gets anything more than that on a regular basis, I would be surprised. When report cards get sent out, there is not much more information available to the parents. With standardized testing results, parents are given significantly more information on what their student is capable of doing.

For a teacher, it can provide invaluable information. While the teacher may glean some information from assessments given in class, it is difficult to know without experience how his or her students stack up to the expected standards.

Within a school district, it can provide information to administrators and the school board. It can be difficult for administrators to make informed judgments from observations. They have to piece together information from a variety of sources to determine teacher efficacy: observations, reports from parents and students, and test results. The first source, observations, can provide the most information to the administrators, but they don't happen with any frequency. From my five years of teaching, I average about 3 visits a year from the administration, and I consider myself lucky to have those visits. Reports from students and parents can be biased for a variety of reasons. A collection of test scores (with the appropriate lens through which they are viewed) can provide some indication if learning is occurring in a classroom.

2) Provides metrics, and goals. With standards, the classroom can be a focused place. The teacher has direction for a particular class, the students know where they are going, and there are measurable standards against which student work can be compared.

3) Standardizes testing. This is one of the strongest points. When you think about ways of measuring student knowledge, one can look at GPAs, SAT scores, and AP scores (and obviously other metrics). GPAs are typically considered to be subjective; earning an A at one high school might not be as challenging as earning an A at another.  It is also known that grade inflation is rampant at colleges. Recent research also suggests that it is happening at high schools too.

These tests, given nationwide, provide some semblance of measuring how a student in Florida compares to a student Wyoming. Armed with this information, colleges, employers, etc can make informed decisions about applicants.

There are many arguments against testing, and I will attempt to debunk some of them:
1) Testing is not learning: Consider the following headline from the National Education Association:
This is the most the statement that I disagree with the most. The statement is obviously false. As mentioned above, teachers and administrators, students, and families can learn a lot from the results of the test. Teachers can learn whether or not their methods were effective, what content their students performed the best on, students can determine how well they know the material, and families can see if their children are learning and if the school district is doing a satisfactory job teaching their children.

2) Too much money is spent on testing. It depends on what your definition of "too much". It is estimated that $1.7 billion is spent annually. For all money being spent on education, it makes up less than one quarter of one percent of all money spent on education.

COUNTER POINT, that no one mentions:
At the same time this money is being spent on testing, increasing amounts of money is being spent in different ways. For example, since 1950, the number of administrative positions has grown at four times the rate of student population growth. This means money is being spent on management, not teaching.

In addition, school districts are hiring personnel to work with special education students at a faster rate than regular classroom teachers. When comparing the number of full time staff employed within high schools in a particular East Bay school district, every high school had more staff working in their special education department than their science and math departments. Mind you, this does not include individual aids who may work one on one with students which are frequently not listed on school websites (they are not for the district that I work in).  School districts have made the decision (or the decision has been made for them by law) that money needs to be spent on particular populations of students and not others.

This is a diagram from a school district of staff working on "Programs for Exceptional Students". Names have been blacked out. Almost none of these individuals work with students themselves. If you want more insight on how much money could be saved, or spent elsewhere in education that would directly impact students, I highly recommend you click on the link in the paragraph above. Money could clearly be spent more wisely on larger budgetary items.

If you are super interested, you can find the salaries of any public employee in California by searching this site. And by any, I mean any- a janitor in the UC system, a guard in a correctional facility, a 3rd grade teacher in San Diego, me, etc. The data hasn't been updated in a few years, but it is accurate. 

3) Too much time is spent on testing and test prep, and teachers are only teaching to the test. For every subject and grade level, states and sometimes districts have published standards that students are supposed to reach. Linked here are the California standards (within it are some common core standards if you are interested), and here are the standards for a particular school district. The standards typically ask the students know a particular body of knowledge and be able to do a particular set of skills.

Assuming that the test is reflective of the standards, what does it mean to that too much time is spent on test prep? That teachers are teaching the content? That they are giving them reviews? As long as the test matches the standards, then I find this argument flimsy.

4) It increases student stress. This is true. Students have lost sleep, thrown up, broken down in various ways due to the stress. Should we avoid all stressful situations for students? No. Is there a way to make this easier? Not sure.
People are exposed to stress all the time. At a certain point we expect them to face it. But for elementary aged students? A tougher call. 

4) Standardized tests paint an incomplete picture. This is clearly true, and can be used to describe any form of measurement. Your ability (or lack thereof) to write a brief for a law firm, cook up a dish for a restaurant, or change the oil in a car does not determine whether or not you are a good human being. But if you are a lawyer or clerk, a cook, or a mechanic, and you can't do those things, then you probably should choose another line of work. For students, we rely upon SAT scores, AP tests, and other sources of information about a student to determine future opportunities. Standardized tests are a part of that picture.

I am not arguing that the current model is a good one. Not all standardized tests are created equal, and new (hopefully improved) ones are being made all the time. Over the past few years, AP tests for the sciences have changed dramatically (in my opinion, a little better than the past tests), and changes are coming for the other subjects. Teachers, by and large, have embraced these changes.

When a person does a poor job changing your oil, there is a consequence for that person. Why is it not the same for education?

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