Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Impact of Standardized Testing

Another week of school and for some students, this week is just like the last; an extremely regimented school schedule dictated by district-mandated standardized testing.  Generally speaking, the impact of standardized testing is widespread across school districts and, more importantly, the awareness of effects like student pressure, teacher anxiety, testing cost, and technical requirements are increasingly known by the average educator and American citizen.  How educators, families, and children prepare for these tests varies from school to school but here are the ways some people prepare.  The debate surrounding student performance data and teacher evaluation/compensation models is a whole other discussion that I am choosing to omit in this post.

The recent push for technology (mainly computers and iPads) in schools has forced testing and publishing companies to create assessments that can be administered via a screen, which leaves children as young as seven staring at a screen for an hour or more each time they test.  The new PARCC assessment is almost completed, flooding literally hundreds of millions of dollars into technology infrastructure and assessment creation.  Someone like me gets excited about this only because it puts many modern learning tools, mainly wireless internet and web-connected devices, in the hands of teachers and students, albeit with a different intent than one might like.  If these assets were made readily available for learning projects, leveraged as creativity tools, and used for student research and collaboration, then the investment would prove worthwhile.  Reality is, current teaching practices and the implementation of Common Core standards are continuing the lock-step movement through lessons, units and tests instead of inspiring creative learning projects, empowering students to create authentic artifacts of learning like models, sketches, plays, media productions and more.  All of which can be easily done with the same computers children are required to use for standardized assessments.

Let's be clear, I'm not opposed to evaluating student progress with various formalized assessments but the discussion I like to engage is the purpose, audience and value of assessments.  Too often assessments are given to students for all the wrong reasons.  I've been reading the Kindle version of Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez which overviews very clearly many kinds of learning opportunities that empower the natural curiosity and creativity inside children.  All of these learning experiences lead to the creation of tangible projects and constructions that demonstrate student understanding and document learning.  Sometimes the learning process is messy and needs refining, but that kind of reworking experience is drastically different than having a child fix mistakes on a grammar or vocabulary worksheet.  I encourage all teachers to make time for children to explore the construction and creation of a something that will compliment a novel study or math concept.  Two students I had a couple years ago built Sunset Towers to go along with our reading of a novel titled The Westing Game.  All I had to do was give them time, resources and encouragement for this design and construction to take place in the classroom.  Even the final video was their work, completed with an inexpensive digital camera, school computer, and Movie Maker software!

And, yes, I am writing this because standardized testing has a tremendous impact on district personnel, like me.  Four times a year, for a minimum of two calendar weeks, I am responsible for scheduling and administering all standardized assessments in my school building.  This is a responsibility of my position and similar positions in schools across my district.  During testing periods, I am not collaborating with our teachers on curriculum development, project planning, technology integration, supporting behavioral needs and all the other things I do on a daily basis.  I can hear the argument already, "But what about the data that these tests produce?"  I'll give you some data.  Our school annually spends eight weeks in the process of standardized testing and over the course of the academic year I total somewhere in the ballpark of another ten days scheduling tests, sorting materials, and analyzing data.  That totals 50 out of my 180 contracted days devoted to the process of standardized testing; 27.8% of my time to be exact(rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent).  But if I really wanted to manipulate the data to emphasize my point, I'd round to the nearest precent, 28%, or just say roughly 30% of my time.  How's that for base-10 knowledge?  And I didn't acquire my math skills in the Common Core era nor did I receive lengthy "training" to learn how to proctor these tests or crunch the numbers.  I figured out how to do it on my own and with the help of my colleagues.  I have also learned, and still practice, my data-analysis skills by sifting through gobs of baseball statistics and other [seemingly meaningless] fantasy sports statistics.  Analyzing data isn't rocket science (though it can be) and doesn't take a genius to do.  Collect and organize the right data for your purpose, and you can make any argument seem convincing.  Our students do this all the time.  Has a student ever tried to persuade you to not give them homework, skip a spelling test, or reject some trivial vocabulary assignment?

I write all of this because I see the investment of resources (time, money, technology, energy) into standardized testing as an example of what educational stakeholders can do when they combine their efforts.  It's just too bad our collective energy is focused on standardizing the learning process in a way that is always lagging behind and driving away from best practices.  It could just as easily be focused on empowering our students to create writing projects, build city maps, design prototypes and build off what they already know.  We as their teachers just need to give them time, space, and encouragement!