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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing

From the Atlantic, Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.

Several interesting take-aways from this article. Particularly the idea, which I agree with, that any large group (214 schools, over 131,000 students) would be better served with Big Data, for logistical reasons.

However the thesis of the article, that standardized testing is standardized only to the textbooks the test publishers write, is damning to testing everywhere, not just to large school districts.
In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.


  1. We in the teaching profession have always had a goodly supply of reasons why we cannot be held accountable.

    They said: "If you have a standardized test, then teachers will teach to the test."
    Of course they would. That’s why you have a standardized test so people will teach what the course is supposed to contain instead of whatever they feel like teaching. I had a professor who always (in graduate math classes) taught Point Sets of Real Numbers. They could assign him any course they liked but he taught a Point Sets of Real Numbers. I had a colleague who left out the applications in mathematics classes. Maybe it was just coincidental that that was the hard part.
    I taught what I tested for 45 years. I had a definition of the course. That implied what I would teach and what I would test on.
    1. taught the material - with no check on whether I taught the right material,
    2. made up the tests with no check on whether they were good ones, and
    3. I made up the test that determined how well they did with no check on that evaluation.
    (I should back up here. I said no check. Actually in half of my classes it was required that the class be given 15 minutes to fill out evaluation form on me. You’ve probably all seen them and have your own opinion of their value.)

    Now I invite you to conduct a thought experiment. If you wanted the worst kind of quality control how would you set it up? I would:
    1. Have the person deciding what the job was, also be the person doing the job.
    2. Have that same person make up the quality control procedures.
    3. Have that same person manage the evaluation of the quality control procedures.

    I believe that I was professional and responsible. Most of us are.
    But - and it is a big but –
    Aside from the bad outcomes (which have in their cause a large component of parental irresponsibility) two of the reasons why people have lost confidence in us:
    1. We make it very hard to get rid of the bad apples among us and
    2. Many, if not most, of us are vehemently opposed to merit pay.

    What education needs is for each state to get a group of the best and brightest minds in learning and education to operate as an advisory (only) group to an outsider whose charge is to turn it upside down and shake it. That would produce several different approaches which would give us some experiments that should give us some good solutions.

    1. I have to agree with Wayne’s recommendation for an external entity to shake things up. The entity would have to have unrestricted power to implement their recommendations. If it were to happen, and I think there is no chance what so ever, I don’t think the education industry would like the changes. Not even a little.

  2. Interesting article that brings up several concepts.

    1. "Standardized testing is standardized to the text books they publish”. There is no mystery on how to solve this issue and there are standards (such as ISO) on how do so. First establish what is important for students to learn (the STANDARDS), then develop the tests and text book to match. Simple.
    2. Never teach to the exam, teach to the STANDARDS
    3. Money is the problem – Money may be A problem but it is not THE problem.
    4. The article describes an appalling lack of administrative control. It does not matter whether this is from a lack of effort or lack of ability. Things will not get better until this is changed.
    5. “stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job”. Agreed, provide the proper tools and THEN evaluate the teachers on performance. And, get rid of the poor performers.
    6. Schools (Public schools) have been persuaded to accept a social role that addresses a number of issues unrelated to education. Providing a text book for each student is an appropriate role for Public schools, feeding children breakfast is not. Before I get accused of being cruel I will state that I want no child, or adult for that matter, to go hungry, but this should not be the school’s issue, neither is providing child care until the parents picks the child up at 6p.

  3. I'm leery of merit pay especially when it is tied to student test scores.

    #6 in Tom's list gave me some new food for thought and I would say that I tend towards agreeing with him.

    I've taught middle school, high school, and am now doing adjunct work at a couple different public universities. Looking back I can admit to being a pretty bad teacher when I first started. I think most of us teachers get much better as we move along (and of course I am dealing with different types of students now than I did 5-6 years ago.) Still, it is fair to say that there are some terrible teachers out there and perhaps this external entity of which Wayne and Tom speak could be a solution.

    I suspect, though, that such an entity is virtually impossible given the politics of public education.

    1. I am curious. Why are you leery of merit pay? If it should not be tied to student test scores what would be an acceptable benchmark?

  4. I suppose I made it sound like I'm leery of all merit pay - I should amend and say simply, I'm leery of it when it is tied to student test scores. The score that a student gets on a test is affected by many external factors (whether or not he ate breakfast that morning, for example) and it seems unfair to me to link pay to something that is beyond the control of the teacher.

    I think I'm more sympathetic than some to the idea that new ways to assess teachers need to be implemented, but to answer your second question I'll say, I don't know. In answering this way I think I show that I could be considered part of the problem because I don't like merit pay for scores but have no better ideas. I end up with the status quo which is not great.

    I also find myself sometimes troubled by exactly what Wayne outlined above - in my current teaching situation I have virtually no oversight with regards to what I teach, how I teach it, or how I assess my students. I believe that I do a good job, but I could just as well do a lousy job and no one would know other than my students and me.

  5. It is true that many other things that can affect how well a student does in my class. But the same is true for every other student in every other teacher's class. The solution is in the wonder of statistics which can isolate one of many variables. For example, lots of things besides smoking cause death, and not every smoker dies young. But we don't doubt that result that says smoking is unhealthy.

    I believe that the conservatives are right about one thing. If you subsidize something you will get more of it. If you pay poor teachers more than they are worth, and good teachers less than they are worth, then you should not be surprised when you get more poor teachers and fewer good ones.

    I am also with the conservatives in the most fundamental sense in that I believe that the “burden of proof is on the advocate of change.” Liberals are generally more easily persuaded that change is necessary. Not in the case of education. One can contemplate why, when the evidence of the failure of education is overwhelming, the roles are reversed in the case of education. Perhaps it centers on who has control of the current structure.

  6. If educators what more respect and the benefits that come with more respect they will have to make it happen because as the saying goes “The respect that a group gets always comes from within the group” Sitting around waiting from someone else to make it happen is just whining. It is not impossible. “What people want to do they do everything else is just talk”.