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Why I Hate Standardized Tests

By Anonymous on Feb 4, 2009 04:27 PM

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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Comments (8)

Submitted by Paul Socolar on February 5, 2009 7:00 pm

On test scores as the Holy Grail, here are some of the other schools besides Central and CAPA where even being proficient on the PSSA is not enough, and their respective test score cutoffs for incoming students:

Academy at Palumbo - 88th percentile;
Carver - 85th percentile;
GAMP - 80th percentile;
Masterman - 88th percentile;
Northeast Medical/Engineering/Aerospace Magnet - 85th percentile;
Saul - 75th percentile.

It's interesting that a couple of schools - Bodine and Science Leadership Academy - just require "excellent scores on the PSSA." While they're still screening out low-scoring kids, at least their criteria are not rigid. Why do you think that approach isn't more widespread? And I wonder how often the schools above cut students some slack.

Submitted by Debbie Wei (not verified) on February 6, 2009 1:41 pm

I would like to think that Bodine and SLA recognize that there are some amazing kids out there who might not test well, but who demonstrate resilience, character, commitment, perseverance...all the stuff you can't measure in a single test, so allow some leeway for those who might not score in the 85th percentile. Reminds me of when I interviewed a traditional artist - a dancer who was teaching Chinese dance. I asked him how he determined who was a good dancer. He said, "Well, of course I look at how they dance. But I also have to ask around the community. Are they good students? Do they respect their elders? Are they good people? Because if they can dance well technically but aren't
good people, they aren't good dancers." But having a great heart and good character doesn't help a school make AYP....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2009 1:00 pm

From what I've heard, these schools do sometimes cut students some slack when they have other talents and connections.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 7, 2009 9:00 am
I had a student, let’s call him Juan, who sat in my science class for 3 years (6th thru 8th grades) and probably never passed a test. At some point I gave up on him. None of my various interventions made any difference. He sat in class, doodled or talked with his classmates. He was amiable enough, had no obvious learning disability so others got my attention. It was pretty much the same with the other teachers on our team. Then late in his eighth grade career, Juan awoke from his slumber. We began a unit on robotics in which students built elaborate machines out of legos and programmed them to do various things on the computer. Not only did Juan engage with his activity, he established himself as the most advanced student in the class, quickly solving the mechanical problems and easily mastering the programming tasks. Finishing the assignments early, he took on the job of tutoring those students who were struggling and asked for additional projects. While naturally I was excited by this development, it also was an indictment on what I had been doing over the previous three years. In countless staff development sessions and workshops teachers are told that intelligence comes in many forms and students have a wide variety of learning styles. Instruction must be guided by these insights if all students are to be reached. Yet when it comes to assessment this wisdom goes out the window in favor of reliance on one instrument – a standardized test that largely ignores the needs of those students, like Juan, who don’t learn in the traditional way embodied in the test’s form and content.
Submitted by Shani Adia Evans (not verified) on February 10, 2009 12:08 pm

It's worth noting that some districts use test scores to ensure student diversity in high schools. For example, some New York City high schools admit students through the educational option

Educational Option programs are designed to allow students of different achievement levels entrance to a high school/program. Students applying to an Educational Option program are categorized into one of three groups based upon the results of their 7th grade standardized reading test score:

Top 16%- High (16% of class should be from this group)

Middle 68%- Middle (68% of class should be from this group)

Bottom 16%- Low (16% of class should be from this group)

Also, I'm unclear about whether the PSSA is appropriate for student ranking and high school admission. The PSSA is criterion referenced exam meant to assess students mastery of PA standards. The TerraNova (which was used in past years) is norm referenced, meaning it's designed to compare and rank students using a normal curve (this paper explains in more detail). Some criterion referenced exams, if designed appropriately, can serve both purposes. It's my understanding (from a secondhand conversation with PA Dept of Ed. official) that the PSSA is invalid for norm-referenced comparisons (i.e. percentile rankings) and should not be used for this purpose. Does anyone know for sure?

Submitted by Phillip Aiken (not verified) on December 6, 2010 7:50 am

I am a person that has been working for years to make things better for our public school students! It is sad and hurtful to see what is going on in the Philadelphia School System! It starts down at 440 and runs down stream to our schools. I hold all of us parents the blame first! We are so blind the we do not see that what is going on is divide and conquer! We have aloud the powers to be to let us fight each others about this that we could have worked out! While we are fighting the powers to be are pushing their plans through and when it is all over we will be holding the bag yet again! Parents need to grow up and speak up for our children! I am a man that has seen the fall of the education system first hand! If anyone read the note book last month you should be heart broke! The young lady touch my heart with that article. I started to work with the Home & School to make a differentsin our children's life , because of what I had to take when I went to college! I was so hurt that 30 plus years later students was still going through this struggle! We still are not on a level playing field in every way! Parents it is time for us to step up to the plate and do our jobs! demand that our children get the education that they deserve. Let's stop let them give us what they want!

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