Friday, September 23, 2011

A Voice in the Wilderness on Standardized Testing

Standardized tests are what's wrong with American public schools, right?

Well, maybe not so much.

We give a SWNIDish salute to the high school English teacher Ama Nyamenkye, who offers a thoughtful, positive assessment of the power of the standardized test, originally in Education Week and more widely disseminated by the potent National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NIOLA, a.k.a. SWNID's favorite higher-ed organization). Here's a little quote that epitomizes her take on taking standardized tests:

The 2010 Scholastic-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation survey of 40,000 educators nationwide found that only 27 percent felt state standardized tests were essential or very important in measuring student performance. I'm now convinced that these sentiments are the product of a testing movement that has become more about fear and politics than pedagogy. Teachers, I believe, are pumping their fists for the wrong reasons. . . .

Sadly, the actual merits and shortcomings of standardized testing often get lost in this stalemated debate that positions the test as either a scourge on teachers or a panacea for reform. In truth, the test is nothing more than a tool. It will not singlehandedly turn around swaths of failing classrooms or be the death of public education.

Only policies, leaders, and, most importantly, teachers wield that kind of power over school performance. Like any assessment tool—including the ones teachers regularly generate and assign—standardized testing has strengths and limitations.

When I "depoliticized" the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. I designed and graded innovative projects—my students participated in court trials for Shakespearean characters—and the test provided a rubric that guided my evaluation of student learning.

You betcha, says SWNID. The truth is that even the most personally invested of teachers at any level is naturally reticent to allow someone else to measure her or his students' learning, precisely, in fact, because the teacher is so personally invested. "These are my children," we all think, "and no one will say they're ugly except for me. Sure, standardized tests can be stupid. Sure it's hard to measure everything that students know or ought to know.

But isn't it better to measure something rather than nothing? And isn't it better that there be some level of objectivity in the measurements?

Nyamenkye's essay represents the work of someone who is less afraid of being evaluated than of neglecting something that her students need to learn from her. She's admirably externally focused, student-centered, outcomes-oriented.

May her noble tribe increase.

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