Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My opinion on standardized testing

Last semester I had an opportunity to be seconded by our Ministry of Education to help write questions for the math departmental exams.  My students do not write these as I am an accredited teacher.  However I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn from others and see where our Ministry is headed with standardized testing.  In the last year our government (Saskatchewan, Canada) has pushed out an initiative to give standardized tests to students starting in grade 3.  I have to say I was not a fan of standardized exams prior to my experience, and after it I am even less of a fan.  It is not that I am afraid of the test as some will say teachers who are opposed are.  I do have a number of reasons for my opposition and would like to share.  These are just my opinion.

My first reason is fairness.  I am struggling with the lack of uniformity for terminology and notation.  The curriculum is not specific enough in many of these cases.  Resources use different notations and terminology.  The pathways have used different terminology and notation!   The curriculum states that students do not have to know all strategies, but they have to be able to do one of them consistently.  I may show all strategies, terminology, notation in my class, but allow students to focus on what makes the most sense to them.  Now they write a standardized test where the developer has picked a notation that they may not have focused on.  Yes, they may have seen it, but it doesn’t mean they understand it, yet they may very well understand the concept, but be unable to answer the question because of the terminology.  I think of domain and range and interval notation vs set notation.  My studdents are split among those two notations.  Yet do they understand domain and range?  You bet.  But on an test like this some may get it wrong, not because they don’t know domain and range but because the notation is not familiar to them.  This is a huge concern for me.  If I had to give a standardized test I would lose the flexibility in my classroom to allow the learners to learn what is best for them.  I would still show all forms, but would say that “this will be what you will see on the standardized test so be sure to know it”.  That so defeats the purpose of our new curriculum and our learnings about learners. 

My second reason is the format.  I do not believe you get a good indication of what the student has learned through a multiple choice format.  There is too much guessing that can occur, or working backwards, or redoing until an answer matches (trial and error).  No one is looking at the work to see what has actually been understood.  How will the results be distributed?  Indication is they will go to the parents and teachers.  Will there be one score?  Question by question results?  Outcome results?  What outcomes will be assessed?   The indication is that they have to be able to be computer scored so the results can be returned asap so that these are deemed as "formative".   What outcomes then will be tested?   How will this be communicated to parents?  Will parents be told that this is simply a snapshot and that the score may be inflated or deflated?   If the test is given towards the end of the year then they are not formative in nature. 

My third reason has to do with the move towards standards (outcome)  based assessing/grading/instruction.  In a standards based classroom, every assessment is done according to the outcome.  It is assessed by level of understanding, with the same rubric each time.  It is not about accumulating points, but in growing the understanding.  In our classrooms, we do not assign a weighting to the final exam.  The students know that if they show growth of understanding they receive that level as their final.  If they do not maintain their previous level of understanding, their overall level will drop and they may even have to come back in for more learning.  We do not allow a student to skip/ignore/leave blank any questions at a low level of understanding or they will have to come back for a conversation.  As a result, the majority of our students actually improve their levels after the final.  This all changed when we took away the percentage weighting on the final.  At that point many students were simply calculating that they had enough “points” to pass or get the mark they wanted.  Now they have to demonstrate understanding on everything.  I think the standardized test will really hinder classes trying to do standards based grading.  They are not set up by outcome, using a common rubric, and assessed by outcome.  There is one score assigned.   This is not an effective assessment method.
 
I get that we are living in a world where accountability has become a huge issue.  However I do not believe that these will make teachers "accountable".  I do not believe the data will be an accurate indication of what is going on in the classroom.  I think that if the government wants to improve teachers and learning, they need to think outside the box.  Dylan Wiliam’s philosophy is that we can’t get rid of the poor teachers, but we need to work with them, support them and help them become better teachers.  I do not believe standardized testing is going to do this.   This is just my opinion.
 

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