Sunday, May 10, 2009

“What are we really testing here?”

The most basic characteristic of any test is validity, that is, whether the test actually tests what it purports to test. Everyone, from the “professionals” who write standardized tests, to the everyday classroom teacher putting together a five-point quiz learns that a test that does not actually test what it claims to test is worthless. They all learned about validity in the colleges of education.

So Mister Teacher makes a great point when he observes that every test is a reading test.

TAKS is stressful enough to prepare for at the 3rd grade level, and our kids at least can get reading assistance on the math test! There has been a little bit of debate over exactly what that means, but at least it is specified that, on an individual basis, a student may ask to have a word or a question read aloud. This helps immensely, especially with a child who is a struggling reader and/or an English Language Learner.

However, after 3rd grade, the kids are completely on their own for every TAKS test -- excepting those kids with special modifications, of course. The vast majority of kids taking these tests every year cannot ask to have a word read, cannot ask for clarification on a question, cannot ask ANYTHING except a question about the directions, and the directions are usually "Pick the best answer."

So what it comes down to is that these kids are taking a series of reading tests. Some of them are ABOUT math or ABOUT science, but they don't strictly assess those subject areas as much as they assess whether or not the child can read the questions, some of which are highly complicated.

I knew a little boy in Japan who was completely bilingual in both Japanese and English, but who had attended only Japanese preschool and kindergarten. The first thing to understand about his situation is that the Japanese kindergarten ends near the end of March, so when he “graduated” from kindergarten, his parents decided to enroll him in an international school where instruction was conducted in English. The principal said the first grade teacher needed to access the boy's readiness.

On the appointed day in March, this boy sat down with a clearly unhappy first grade teacher. She did not want any new students entering her class so close to the end of the school year, especially one whose parents had the idea the child would go on to second grade after less than three months in first grade. The teacher asked a number of questions about fairy tales and a few addition problems and announced that the boy was “marginal.” She would allow him into her first grade class on the condition that the parents understood that in September he would very likely have to “repeat” the first grade. The parents accepted the condition.

In April, the school gave the annual Stanford 9 bubble tests. The first grade teacher made a copy of this boy's answer sheets to hand grade, because the score reports would not be available before the end of the school year. She needed ammunition for the parent-teacher conference she was sure she would need when she planned to tell the parents that yes, indeed, their son would have to repeat first grade.

To her utter astonishment, the boy had almost a perfect set of answer sheets. The score report, when it eventually arrived, placed the boy in the 99th percentile on every battery. Obviously he went to the second grade along with his class. Eventually the same boy graduated from an American university at age eighteen with a degree in chemistry.

So why did the teacher consider the boy marginal? Mostly because he did not know who Rumpleskilskin was. The boy could have told her all about Momotaro, a Japanese fairy tale character the teacher had never heard of, if only she had known to ask, except Momotaro was not included in the school's first grade curriculum anyway.

Imagine going to live in Russia for a year and taking a math class. After 3 months, you are given a math test in Russian, consisting of word problems and lengthy questions. I don't know about you, but I would fail that test miserably. Would ANYONE in their right mind think that that means I don't know math?? Or that that test accurately gauged my knowledge??

I was a teacher in that international school in Japan. I taught math and science to the middle-schoolers. Every year fully 50% of my students were non-native speakers of English. One year four of my students were non-English speakers who had transferred from the Japanese school just that year. Lucky for me I also speak Japanese. I was the only American teacher in the school who spoke Japanese. There were a few Japanese-speaking teacher's aides.

I made all kinds of accommodations to help my non-native English-speaking students. I paired each one with a native speaker for labs. I translated my instruction to Japanese on the fly on a regular basis. I adapted reading instruction techniques usually used in much lower grades to the science book as if the science book were a basal reader. I read words or whole questions from my tests for any student who asked. And for those four non-English speakers, I translated the whole test to Japanese. I did all these things because I knew what every tester should know, that is the purpose of the tests. The purpose of my tests was to evaluate the student's mastery of my instruction with the corollary purpose of giving the students the best chance for success.

We may think the purpose of standardized is to evaluate individual student's knowledge, but in reality, the tests serve to rank students compared to the norming population, and then by extension, to rank the quality of the school relative to the norming population. The reality will always frustrate because the nature of norming means that half will be above the 50th and half will be below the 50th percentile when compared to the total population.

If some schools can attract an overabundance of topside students, obviously other schools will end up with an overabundance of bottomside students. Testing can, by design or not, perpetuate the inequality of educational opportunity and undermine any promising efforts of school reform.

So who would want to perpetuate inequality of educational opportunity? Sadly, parents and other adults. But Lake Wobegone does not exist.

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