Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Tests scores are up, what does that mean?

Tuesday’s AP article, “Report: Math and reading scores up since NCLB” observes many U.S. states are reporting better student performance on mandated K-12 student tests:

Moderate to large gains were found in 37 of the 41 states with trend data on the percentage of kids hitting the proficient mark on elementary-school math tests. None of the states showed comparable declines.

This should not be a surprise to anyone who has some past involvement with high stakes testing in schools. In a school culture emphasizing high-stakes tests, performing well on “the test” can often become the overriding instrumental reason for going to school for both students and teachers. In such a culture, OF COURSE test scores are going to rise because teachers will naturally “teach to the test.” As teachers and students become more familiar with the format of the test and its expectations, scores naturally rise. This is pointed out in the article:

Jennings and Fuller agreed some of the gains may reflect what teachers are focusing on in their classrooms. “The teachers teach to the test, and that’s a rational response by classroom teachers under pressure to raise scores,” Fuller said.

It’s important to remember that in all these states (as far as I know) these mandated tests represent MINIMUM requirements. As the article author observes:

The rigor of tests varies from state to state, according to Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He said states generally set the proficiency bar low, since schools face tough consequences — such as having to fire teachers or administrators — if their students do poorly on the tests.

So, is an article like this reason for celebration? If you are in the U.S. Department of Education or a political official responsible for high stakes testing, perhaps you think it is.

I however, tend to think a result like this is just something to be expected. It’s a major reason why politicians have supported the ridiculous myopic focus we now have in many schools today on summative assessments. At the end of the day, before the next election, they want to point to a report like this and say “See! The legislation I’ve supported has made a difference for our kids and helped learning.” A more honest assessment of the results might be, “Yeah! More of our kids appear to be meeting MINIMUM standards. We’ve successfully shaped school cultures so in-depth, inquiry based learning and constructivist teaching models are NOT valued, and instead replaced that emphasis (where it existed) with whole-hearted focus on testing, drill and kill worksheets, and lower-level cognitive thinking more appropriate for the industrial era of the 19th century rather than the conceptual age of the 21st century.”

The main problem with the initial aforementioned claim of a politician (that high stakes testing is “working”) is that higher test performance does not necessarily correlate to higher levels of learning. In many cases, it DOES correlate to helping students develop better test taking skills. It is easiest to reliably and validly assess learners on content at the knowledge and comprehension levels. It is MUCH more challenging to assess students WELL via standardized or criterion bases assessments on their abilities to effectively use and demonstrate higher level thinking skills. (Doing the latter takes LOTS of time and work. For more on that, listen to what Dr. Carl Wieman has to say on the subject in the context of science and physics.)

To her credit, in the article U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, is quoted as acknowledging the report’s results do not highlight the REASONS for the higher test scores:

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the study shows No Child Left Behind is working, but the report itself doesn’t assign credit to the law for the improvements made. It states that other state and local initiatives have taken place during the same period that might deserve some of the credit.

If the report does not hint at correlation or causation, then how can someone validly claim “the study shows No Child Left Behind is working?” I’m not sure.

NCLB “has worked” to change schools, but it has changed the culture of schools in most cases I’ve encountered FOR THE WORSE. NCLB should NOT be renewed, and our governmental leaders should abandon the hurtful educational bandwagon many of them have jumped on which has corrupted the teaching profession and created a more fear-laden learning culture of minimal inquiry and frequent “content-dipping.” NCLB does not emphasize or value digital literacy skills or the higher level thinking skills which CAN be emphasized and effectively assessed by teachers in the classroom– but not in the simple, standardized ways most politicians think the public deserves and should have. Messy learning and messy assessment is needed instead.

What the U.S. public DOES deserve and should have is a supportive political environment for education, teaching, and learning, which provides the MONEY required to educate EVERY child as well as the VISION to help schools and teachers transition from the “pay for seat time” / “sit and get and forget” model of learning which we inherited from the 19th century. Blended digital learning, led by teachers who serve more as the facilitators and cheerleaders of learning (cultivating personal relationships with individual students to differentiate learning and help meet individual needs) should be hallmarks of schools in the 21st century. Unfortunately, even if some test scores in reading and math are up, I’m unconvinced NCLB has helped broadly guide the nation’s classrooms toward the innovative and digitally informed vision of 21st century education which we desperately need in this nation.

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3 responses to “Tests scores are up, what does that mean?”

  1. Brian Crosby Avatar

    Hmmmm … I wonder too if maybe you only teach or mainly teach math and reading and cut, science, social studies, art PE, drama, etc. you might expect a rise in those scores? Is that a surprise? If you almost double the time spent on those two subjects for years I would think you might just see an improvement in those scores. Does the ends justify the means? Is this really how we should be going about this?
    This is the cheapest way to make a difference in the scores because the belief has been successfully set that we spend too much on education and not enough on pay and bonuses for CEOs.
    Learning is messy!

  2. Mrs. Durff Avatar

    Exactly! The ability to take a test is what is being assessed. There is little value in that. Assessment is supposed to inform teaching, not inform a voting legislature.

  3. […] Tests scores are up, what does that mean? from Moving at the Speed of Creativity: Wesley Fryer discusses a CNN article that shows a rise in test scores since NCLB. Are our students doing better or are we just teaching to the test? […]