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Why I Hate Standardized Tests

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My sons are now 18 and 20 years old and both have been able to get in to college. But it wasn’t easy. I knew it would be a problem when they were in kindergarten and 2nd grade respectively.

 At that time, I was working for the School District and one of my jobs was to review for “multicultural content” standardized test items (back then, it was for the SAT-9). This was in and of itself a bizarre undertaking since the test writers’ ideas of how to add multicultural content consisted of changing the names in an item from Mary and Susan to Ling Ling and Shaniqua. And while I think these tests can give us SOME information, I have never believed they should be given the weight that they have now attained under NCLB. Besides, it felt downright surreal to be reviewing items for a 1st grade science test.

 One question in particular stuck out to me. On the test page were a picture of a) a rock; b) a child’s stuffed animal toy, c) a tree and d) a flower.  The question was: “Circle which ones are living things” I wondered how my two boys at home would answer a question like this and since neither was in the tested grade the item was on, I thought I’d run it past them as an experiment.

 I recreated the test item by drawing on a piece of paper. I called PJ, the 2nd grader, and asked him, “Circle which ones are living things” He glanced at the paper for a few seconds, gave me a near-adolescent roll of the eyes and said, “None of them. They’re all drawings on paper.” After he left, I thought to myself, “My oldest son is doomed when it comes to standardized tests.” I called my younger son, Aaron, and asked him the same question, confident that at least one of my children would show exceptional brilliance as identified by these high stakes tests. Five-year-old Aaron looked at the paper thoughtfully, carefully assessing each picture. He then turned to me and said, “All of them are alive if you love them.” My eyes teared up, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the tenderness my child expressed, or the knowledge that both of my square-peg sons were screwed in terms of the round hole of the standardized test world.

 True to form, neither of them ever became a brilliant test taker. Yet, these tests have followed them around like a bad virus you can’t shake. PSSA for high school admission. SAT for college admission. GRE for graduate school if they choose to go there. Fair Test has catalogued these tests’ shortcomings better than I can here. 

As our first eighth grade graduates run through the high school application process, I ask myself if it makes any sense that magnet schools in Philadelphia still use PSSA scores to judge their applications.  Shouldn’t qualities of persistence, humor, compassion count for something?  These are questions I thought and wrote about when I helped to found FACTS.

Even with a proliferation of high school options in Philadelphia, test scores have remained the holy grail, although the district is not always forthright about it. Neither the city’s high school transfer form nor the general information flyer about high school options makes this clear. It’s not until you get to the level of looking at each individual school’s criteria that you can see the range. In special admission schools like Central, you need to score in the 88th percentile or above to be considered. The High School for Creative and Performing Arts, for reasons that betray a misunderstanding of artistic talent, requires the 80th percentile or above before a student can even be allowed to audition.  By screening these students in this way, these selective schools are able to pretty much guarantee they will meet AYP goals that are still based on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, I sit as a principal in a school which in two months will once again face the yearly trauma of standardized tests. In our little school, you can be sure there are plenty of little square pegs whose brilliance will never be measured by these tests.

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