This a guest post from Dr. Teresa Thayer Snyder, Superintendent of the Voorheesville Central School District.
It was originally published on the Superintendent’s page of the district’s website.
In a recently administered New York State Test in English Language Arts for grade eight, there was a great hue and cry over a short piece of writing and the subsequent questions that were designed to measure student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The passage in question was a parody of the popular Aesop’s fable that many of our children learn in elementary school, in which a tortoise races a hare. In the state test passage,
the tortoise is replaced by a talking pineapple, and the moral of the story is that pineapples don’t have sleeves.
The passage illustrates perfectly the problem with relying on standardized tests to measure achievement and effectiveness.
The writing piece about the pineapple was absurd, and the questions had no clear answers. Definitely a flaw in any multiple choice standardized test, where great attention is paid to making certain that the distractors are clearly not correct. Where this leads to an even deeper level of absurdity is that the author of the original piece stated in an interview that he had sold some writing to the testing company, along with editing rights. In his original story there was no pineapple. He admits the story was supposed to be silly, but the company had edited his story in which the race was between an eggplant and a hare with the moral of the story being “Never bet on an eggplant.”
I am thinking that the test writers from Pearson realized that writing about an eggplant could be construed as racially charged, as in some communities “eggplant” is a disparaging word synonymous with the most denigrating racial slur we know. I once tried to become a test writer for a large company to make some extra money in my early days as an educator. I am afraid I had to walk out of the training session because we were being taught to sanitize every item so that it had no racial, ethnic, religious, sexist, sexual, cultural connotations at all. Results should not be skewed by connotations. In some respects this made sense, until we were asked to comment on one item in particular—one which every up-and-coming test item writer identified as acceptable. It went something like this:
Which of the following is a principle export of Indonesia?
We trainees all selected the correct answer c, and we were told that, while we were correct, it was a test item that would have to be thrown out because of its connotation. I was embarrassed by my naiveté, and I decided on the spot that I did not need extra money that badly and excused myself from what might have been a lucrative career as a test writer!
Perhaps it would be different in math as it is so much more precise, with less room for personal interpretation. However, on an elementary NYS math test this spring students were marked off if they did not identify a rectangle as having two sets of parallel sides with four 90 degree angles. One child wrote that a rectangle is a quadrilateral with two sets of parallel sides and the angles are equal. He lost points because he did not put 90 degree angles. Since the day of the test correction period, I have been trying to figure out how you could have a quadrilateral that had two sets of parallel sides with equal angles and have those angles be anything other than 90 degrees!
I have been skeptical of these testing mandates for many years—in fact, I wrote a piece for the Spotlight in 1999 about the then-fourth grade tests. Please understand, I am an avid believer in assessment, but I don’t have confidence that these very expensive tests are anywhere near as accurate in measuring achievement as a teacher who works with students every day. At least in class, assessment can take on color and texture. The passage illustrates the problem with relying on standardized tests to measure achievement and effectiveness.
Back in the day of my early first principalship, I had a third grade teacher who begged me to buy her class world maps that you see in classrooms—the ones that roll down. I purchased her state-of-the-art maps and she was very happy. Then in 1991, about 24 hours after they were installed, the Soviet Union collapsed. In September, when her class returned, her first assignment involved those maps. “Ms. Snyder just bought us these amazing maps! Using the resources in the classroom, identify why they are no longer accurate.” I was astonished at how invested these young children were in this worthy search for information.
That same year, I attended my own sixth grader’s open house and, as I sat in a brand new classroom, I heard the following: “We use a standardized assessment for social studies and it won’t be corrected in time for the June final (this was September) so we are going to teach the Soviet Union like it still exists, although we will touch upon the collapse during current events.” I was astonished and I simply asked: “Why don’t you just ask the students to write an essay on why the questions are no longer relevant?” Well, that would not be standardized—I agreed, but who cares??
I happened to visit kindergarten screening where we use a very tried and true assessment tool, but my ears hurt when I listened to one of the questions posed to a preschooler: “What are shoes made of?” When I was a child (probably around the time this assessment was first developed!) there would probably have been one correct answer: leather. But I glanced at the tiny feet in the gymnasium and saw the widest selection of materials covering them—vinyl, cotton, leather, canvas—in bright colors—and some of them even had several materials on one shoe (with lights!!). That is what is flawed about the overreliance on tests to measure achievement and effectiveness. It removes the vitality of the instructional interactions.
There is nothing standardized about a child—which brings me to another testing challenge. When my youngest went to his preschool screening—using that same exact screening tool—he was asked to write his name. He wrote ZAK. I was pretty impressed because Z and K sometimes came out twisted and turned. When I mentioned that to the screener, I was told: “Yes but it’s too bad he spelled it wrong—it should be Zach.” I was astounded as I responded that his name was Zak and the reason why was because he was born prematurely and his tiny shirt that matched his siblings’ with their names on the back was only big enough to hold three letters!
I once read an advertisement for a testing company that said they could make measuring your child’s achievement as standardized as McDonalds makes French Fries. That led me to write an essay entitled, “Your Child is Not a French Fry.” Those of us who know and love children know that they are as unique as their thumbprints, and no matter what test you give under any conditions, it will never be a full measure of who they are and what they can accomplish.
The sixth grader to whom I alluded in the social studies experience came home on the last day of sixth grade. My older daughter told me her sister was upstairs very upset. When I got to my child who had just completed elementary school, she was sobbing on my bed. This was not because of her sadness at leaving her school, but resulted from her perusal of her standardized tests scores, which the school sent home with the children. I asked her what the problem was and she told me the reports said she was below average. “I am only in the third stanine,” she cried. I burst out laughing, which sounds quite cruel, and on one subset of a multi-set test she had, indeed, scored in the third stanine. She looked at me horrified, as I chuckled, and I explained that any 11-year-old who could interpret stanines was anything but below average! She is now an accomplished professional with a master’s degree.
I did not enter this field so that I could place ceilings on what children could accomplish. I believe it is the job of an educator to open doors, not to box students in. My sons are both teachers. My oldest had a sixth grade student a few years back who came to him reading at a first grade level. At the end of the year he was on grade level. People asked what my son did, and his response was that the boy had heard for so long that he could not read, he believed it. That is one of the problems with some assessments: They can become self-fulfilling.
Our challenge as educators and as parents is to understand that no child is finished just because of a summative assessment. In fact, every summative assessment is nothing more than a set of data to inform instruction. Going to school is about becoming smarter—a fact that I am afraid is losing ground in the race to the top!