Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Standardized Testing - One Point Left Unargued

In the never-ending debate around education in the US, standardized testing has become something of a flashpoint in recent years.  Some folks suggest that only testing can adequately measure the effectiveness of teachers and/or curriculum choices, while others argue that such testing fails (and terminally so) to account for individual learning styles.  Teachers often complain that the resulting regimen leads to a "teaching to the test" approach that forces them to forgo a broad range of teaching techniques.  Most recently, a school board memer in a large school district took the 10th grade standardized tests and did rather poorly.  That school board member contrasted his poor performance on the standardized tests with his success in business, suggesting that he would never have attended college if he had scored as poorly in his high school years as he did 20-30 years later.  The clear implication is that standardized testing covers "unnecessary" topics.

In all the hue and cry, it seems to me that a significant point of argument has been left unspoken by most folks in the debate.  It isn't a question of whether the specific skills tested are "necessary" in the real world; I'll readily admit that, in my 20+ years in IT, I haven't once been called upon to factor a polynomial, diagram a sentence, or determine the effects of various catalysts on a given chemical reaction.  The key point is that all of these "testable points" are indicative of the student's mental discipline; having completed coursework in these subjects, can they apply their knowledge properly?  Consider the "reading portion" of these standardized tests, in which students are given a passage to read and are questioned on the the content of said passage.  There's a skill which requires little rote memorization; rather, it's simply a question of understanding the rules of one's language.  The school board member was stunned to score a 62% on the reading section of the standardized test; however, one has to wonder how often a businessman does "reading for detail" in today's business climate. When we're constantly expected to "dumb it down", "just hit the high points", and "put it all on a few slides", is it any wonder that one's skills in reading and analysis would atrophy?

Now, this does NOT mean that standardized testing should assume center stage as the be-all and end-all of measuring student/teacher performance, but until we find a reasonable method of measure the mental discipline to which I referred earlier, standardized tests may well be the best available tool.  My four kids consistently test in the 90th-99th percentiles on various tests, and that performance certainly isn't the result of cram sessions or preparatory courses (no Kaplan in this house); rather, I believe their strongest abilities to be critical thinking and mental discipline - both of which CAN be taught, but also transcend any individual subject and can be applied to ANY career path the student might choose.  (Consider, if you will, the parallels between diagramming a sentence, prototyping code, and troubleshooting a problem - all 3 are mental exercises in understanding structure...)

If we really want to improve the US educational system AND its results, we need to take a step back from the "OH MY GOSH THE STATE TESTS ARE COMING" emphasis and go back to developing the ability for critical thinking among our students.  Yes, we have to test student performance, but no single set of tests is going to provide the comprehensive measurement our students need - and deserve.

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