Why standardized testing in our schools SUCKS

Why CSAP Sucks
By Christian Piatt

(Originally published in PULP)

If the ridiculous school supply and uniform bills weren’t enough to signal the beginning of school, there are plenty of other signs that the academic season is upon us: nervous-looking kids; slightly euphoric parents; bulging backpacks and the telltale crossing guards posted at strategic locations around town.

We also know it’s back-to-school time since we’re finally getting a glimpse of the CSAP test results from last year. The CSAPs – which stands for “Colorado Student Assessment Program” – is given to most students on most grades throughout the state, supposedly to track student progress. A love child of George Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation, the CSAPs and similar testing batteries across the nation have drawn mixed reviews.

In general, the sentiment toward the tests is negative, but the problem is most folks agree we should have some sort of accountability for student achievement; the problem is that no one seems to have a clue about how to make the tests better.

For starters, the tests historically have compared apples to oranges, holding one third-grade class’ scores up against the third-graders that follow them the next year and so on from grade to grade. But aside from any kids who failed and had to repeat a grade, these are entirely different students, so it’s impossible to get much useful data this way.

Recently, the bureaucrats and administrators have wised up at least a little, and they’re now tracking cohorts. This means we get to see data from one group of students as they progress throughout their academic career. But this still has huge flaws, particularly in a highly mobile community like Pueblo. In some schools, where the mobility rate exceeds 100 percent, most of theses aren’t the same kids from beginning of year to end, let alone from one year to the next.

A more reasonable solution is to implement a longitudinal system that follows each individual students from kindergarten to graduation. This would require more consistency from state to state, but it’s really the only way to use the tests to tell if a particular student is where they need to be or not.

Another issue is the test’s sensitivity, on two levels. First, though some strides have been made to try and make the tests culturally sensitive, there are still issues surrounding the assumption of prior knowledge, much of which comes from a middle class, primarily Anglo background. Simply put, middle class kids have seen and done more than poorer kids, which gives them an advantage over kids who may have never left their home town.

A second sensitivity problem is more technical, primarily regarding the higher and lower extremes of the scale. In general, all we hear about is whether or not a kid performs at or above the “proficient” level, which constitutes two of the four possible quartiles within which scores can fall. Each school can see scores in a bit more detail, but for a child who began as a non-English speaker, or as functionally illiterate, a gain of a year or more may not even create a blip on the score chart. Some concessions are made for “special needs” students, but this hardly addresses the fundamental flaw, which is a test that is akin to taking a chainsaw into surgery.

Finally, there’s the problem of what the tests actually measure. The testing protocols, which are timed, try to tell if a child has mastered a set of skills necessary to solve a problem, whether it is a math proof or answers at the end of a reading passage. For the kids who get the right answers, all is well, but for the rest, the tests really tell us nothing.

For example, say a child misses all five questions at the end of a story passage. Though we can see they got all the wrong answers, did they fail because they didn’t understand the story? Maybe they misunderstood the questions? Or perhaps the directions for what to do in the first place? Did they read too slowly to even get to the questions? Did they have so many words they could not decode in the story that they lost the story’s point? Did they lack the vocabulary to comprehend three dozen words in the first few paragraphs?

We have no idea.

That’s because these are achievement tests, which do just that: measure overall achievement. If, however, we really wanted to mind some valuable data from this effort, we should be conducting diagnostic assessments. This not only tells you where a child does well, but where, across the board, they are weak. This helps teachers target the low points so that the entire end-result can come up, and so that some problems for which kids may compensate early in their school careers don’t suddenly blow up in their faces come junior high or high school.

Some are calling for the whole testing concept to be trashed, which would be a mistake. The problem isn’t that we’re testing our kids; it’s that we don’t know how or why. For now, though, the CSAPs and their counterparts in others states score well below proficient.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.caitlyngrant.com Caitlyn Grant

    There’s another problem with thses tests. I used to work for one of the major companies with contracts to grade tests from all over the country. The individuals hired to grade the tests generally had no background in education. For most of them, the job was simply an alternative to working in a call center. The quality and consistency of their work, especially as deadlines approached, were dubious. The score received by your child may be essentially meaningless. Some states have stricter quality standards than others, requiring the contractor to implement varying levels of quality control measures.

    • http://www.christianpiatt.com christianpiatt

      Interesting. I did not know about the scoring. Thanks for the info.

  • Greg

    Being an Iowa resident, I was subject to the Iowa basic skills tests as a child starting 40 years ago. I don’t remember being that intimidated by them, but feel they give administrators something they can “measure”. It is very difficult to assign measurable attributes to things that are very subjective or have many variables. You go with what you have, hopefully understanding the limitations of the tests. Most government run programs will be run this way as unknowledgeable bureaucrats are charged with operating with the programs Knowledgable teachers are then required to teach to the test or measurements.

    One comment of note was about No Child Left Behind Act being a love child of George Bush. No fan of the legislation myself, but it truly was historically one of the most bi-partisan pieces of legislation, clearing the House of Representatives 381 to 41 with more Democratic than Republican yea votes. Senator Ted Kennedy was one of the bill’s authors and sponsor in the Senate where it passed 87 to 10 with 42 Democratic yeas.

  • http://www.penningtonpublishing.com Mark Pennington

    Absolutely spot-on… Diagnostic assessments are essential instructional tools for effective English-language Arts and reading teachers. However, many teachers resist using these tools because they can be time-consuming to administer, grade, record, and analyze. Some teachers avoid diagnostic assessments because these teachers exclusively focus on grade-level standards-based instruction or believe that remediation is (or was) the job of some other teacher. To be honest, some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because the data might induce them to differentiate instruction—a daunting task for any teacher. And some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because they fear that the data will be used by administrators to hold them accountable for individual student progress. Check out ten criteria for effective diagnostic ELA/reading assessments at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/ten-criteria-for-effective-elareading-diagnostic-assessments/ and download free whole-class comprehensive consonant and vowel phonics assessments, three sight word assessments, a spelling-pattern assessment, a multi-level fluency assessment, six phonemic awareness assessments, a grammar assessment, and a mechanics assessment from the right column of this informative article.


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