By Stuart Singer, The Master Teacher
In a recent post, Mel Riddile clearly enunciated one of the most difficult problems with utilizing standardized testing as a measure of the competence of administrative and teaching staffs.
“For the first four years of our SOL tests (SOL stands for Standards of Learning), schools were accountable but students were not. During those four years, some students would often finish three-hour tests in forty minutes. Some would draw pictures on their answer sheets and generally make a mockery of the testing process.
“Knowing that they were at the mercy of the students and completely dependent on their good will, principals tried everything to encourage students to do their best. They offered grade incentives. One school even said that any student scoring proficient would earn a “B” as a final grade in the tested courses. Schools had assemblies and offered prizes. The bottom line is that we were desperate.”
He is not exaggerating the situation. I was there and sadly I must report that he is actually being exceedingly kind.
A two-legged stool
Without an equal commitment to excellence by the three groups directly involved—administrators, teachers and students—standardized testing at the high school level can be a sham. In far too many cases one of those groups, the actual test-takers have been removed from that delicate structure. Such a situation would be merely unfortunate if the stakes for the adults involved were not so high. Anyone seeking an example of how these realities play out need only look at professional sports.
Currently the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League are involved in their postseason playoffs which will lead to crowning champions. Even the most casual observer can see that the games being played in April are significantly different from those during the “regular” season. Defenses become tenacious; diving on the floor or banging into the boards commonplace. Risking life and limb is the norm rather than the exception. And for anyone who watches these athletes competing in meaningless preseason contests it is clear that the effort levels escalate from low to high to overdrive in the course of the entire season. These very human responses—like those of students taking meaningless tests— are a reaction to one critical factor—importance.
But as Mel Riddile points out the current testing system is much like a three-legged stool which has one leg barely attached. It is small wonder that few educators are comfortably leaping onto that seat.
How important is testing accountability for the students? The first year the English SOL became a barrier to graduation the average pass rate in Virginia jumped from the 70% range to the mid-90s.
There were, however, many other subtle rules that made the exam program much more of a test for the staff than the students. The requirements for a student to graduate in Virginia included passing both English exams (reading and writing) and four others including one from math, science and social studies. Those rules meant that of the nine other tests to be administered students had to pass only four to earn a diploma. The results clearly demonstrated the difference between mandatory and not. While the English scores were always in the upper 90s, pass rates in the other tests would lag well behind. In the past few years at many schools the numbers on these curriculums would be 20% or more below the English ones in the same building. But the staff was being assessed on all tests, not just the mandatory ones.
While Dr. Riddile spoke of incentives to encourage students, he failed to mention that the leadership in the district fought these at every turn. They made decrees that forbid the use of test scores in grading. For the years 2007 and 2008 my school had to seek a special dispensation from the Assistant Superintendent to give any form of motivation to test-takers. The ultimate irony was that at a department chair meeting where the leaders of math, social studies and science were arguing for these incentives, the English chair announced that his staff saw no need for them since passing their exams was mandatory and opted out of the discussion.
To make matters worse the exams themselves were flawed in a manner that also reduced the motivation to work hard. First, at best, the exams are a measure of minimum competency. A mastery of 40% of the material is sufficient to pass the four-question, multiple-choice format where guessing was rewarded. Faced with the task of passing a test which may not ultimately affect one’s graduation and was designed to be passed with little or no effort, rarely was great intensity demonstrated by students in either their preparation or actual work.
Secondly, adding insult to injury was a school assessment tool developed by one District Superintendent. The SOL exams had three possible outcomes—a “failure” for a score below 400, a “pass” for scores at or above 400 and an “advanced” for those attaining at least 500. The two different passing categories had no impact on the students who needed only the minimum score to receive full credit. This policy-maker decided that schools had to have an annually increasing percentage of the higher scores in order to be evaluated as “successful”. As a result of these requirements, schools were faced with the daunting task of convincing students to strive for a result well above what they needed to attain with no actual reward for the test-taker.
If desperation is the goal without meaningful academic improvements—mission accomplished.