The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz

2. The History of Testing

  • Here we start with the history of testing going back to the invention of the bell curve by Gauss. This is interesting if you aren’t familiar with it. Then Anya points out that modern state tests are designed to sort and thus resemble norm-referenced IQ tests designed to compare the test takers rather than criteria referenced tests that are designed to find out what they know. Tests used for obtaining drivers licenses are a good example of a criterion referenced test that people can take multiple times until they pass.
  • Schools don’t have access to reliable, easy-to-use tests to measure the full range of human strengths. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Anya discusses the work of Dr. Robert Sternberg that features tests that go beyond testing analytical intelligence to testing creativity and practical thinking. Here it the link to his Successful Intelligence site.

3. The Politics of Tests

  • The initial focus here is on the 1983 report from a committee established by the federal government titled A Nation At Risk. It used declining test scores to support a decline in our educational system. The reason the scores were declining is that more students were taking the tests, and when you separated the scores into sub groups, they actually went up. Anya also notes that all other countries give fewer tests, and as a result, they have better tests graded by subject matter specialists. In 1994 under president Clinton, the nation started what is now considered by many its test and punish system. In some places state tests even determine grade level promotion! The big winners here were the companies that make and grade the tests.
  • Now the political class is buying the idea that if you improve test scores you will erase poverty and you can’t improve scores if you don’t have tests. Another myth is that testing will reduce achievement gaps, but there is no evidence that this has happened. The idea that all children can achieve at the same high level is simply nonsense. The rest of the chapter takes us from the creation of NCLB testing and it’s insane goal of having every student proficient by 2014 to the Obama administration’s doubling done on testing stakes by using them to rate teachers, to today’s environment where politicians are backing off on the stakes for the still mandated tests. Anya also takes a shot at the Billionaires Boys Club which includes people like Bill Gates. They have been big pushers of testing as metrics of success due to the fact that businesses use metrics to measure their own success.

4. Opting Out

  • Protests against testing are not new, but the current opt out movement is a relatively new phenomenon. Current tests reduce content, reduce imagination, limit complex curriculum, and add stress and cost. They help the test makers and drive teachers out of the profession. The present movement has proponents on the right and the left. They are focused on the middle class as the upper class tends to like test scores and the lower class is just struggling to survive. Ironically, they mainly punish poor kids as scores are tightly correlated with income.
  • Parents need to know if tests are used for promotion to the next grade or for entry into competitive middle and high schools before they opt out. The worst schools force opt out kids to sit and do nothing in the same room and reward test takers with ice cream. The chapter ends with Anya’s step by step instructions for opting out. Also note that you can opt out of SATs and ACTs as 3,000 colleges currently consider them optional.

5. The Four Teams

  • Companies like Google look for general cognitive ability, leadership, and collaboration skills. This implies that schools should also focus on noncognitive skills like mindset and grit. Anya’s first team is Team Robot. This is where we use computers to teach and assess with assistance from a teacher. This so-called Angry Bird Model features self-paced learning, instant feedback, and mastery-based learning that doesn’t move you on to new material until you demonstrate a good understanding of underlying concepts. It also allows for continuous passive data collection as kids are constantly being tested without realizing it. Failure and trying again are also part of the system. Robot grading of student writing isn’t perfect, but it can serve a roll as teachers no longer have to grade everything students write.
  • The next team is Team Monkey which deals with social and emotional learning. This is the other side of learning represented by the acronym MESH as in “mindsets and essential skills and habits.” These skills are hard to measure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Much research is being done and many schools are using various surveys for this purpose even though they aren’t always good assessments. We also need to be careful as this kind of learning is also greatly influenced by student poverty. Such assessments must never have any stakes attached let alone high stakes.
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