Idealistic vs. Realistic Expectations Regarding Standardized Testing

I read an interesting blog post the other day regarding the controversial practice of using standardized test scores to determine school/teacher effectiveness and success. If you’ve read anything from Diane Ravitch, you’ve probably heard similar notions before. And, of course, whenever PISA results are released, people/schools/countries are clamoring to compare themselves. Also, for my school, PARCC testing begins next week.

I completely agree with Ravitch and other educators who suggest that there are faults within a system that puts too much emphasis on standardized measures and indicators for determining success. It’s impossible to glean all information simply from a school’s standardized test scores.

Idealistically, there’d be no standardized measures used to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools. These tests don’t accurately demonstrate all that schools and students can do. There is so much more beyond test scores. We’ve all heard the stories about students who were bad test takers, but turn out to be successful later as lifelong learners. The success of these individuals is often attributed to skills/knowledge/abilities/etc. that can’t be measured (or aren’t measured easily). As Eisner said, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is measured matters.” I remember reading that line and then discussing it in my doctoral coursework. It was empowering.

However, realistically, that’s not the current state of education in which we all serve. My superintendent requires deliverables. Our locally elected school board wants to see numbers, and good numbers at that (or at least numbers trending in the positive direction). When my superintendent feels the pressure to put up good numbers for the school board, he then requires the school principals to do what they must in order to achieve those numbers. The principals then work with their staff towards achieving and/or maintaining those numbers. Teachers then work with students and their parents to bring this goal to fruition. It’s like a top-down funnel that continually perpetuates the focus on standardized achievement scores.

Like many have said, this systematic change requires brave educators and change agents to step up/rise up against the system. We’ve seen some brave educators do such things, and often lose their employment as a result. We’ve seen parents and students “opt out” of standardized tests. For some parents, there were consequences for such actions. Realistically, we operate in a system that requires compliance regarding standardized achievement scores.

I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong. I’m just stating the truth. Yet, I do wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Much of what I’ve read and researched proposes that the educators or parents/students within the system make the changes. I completely see the validity in that approach. I’m simply wondering if there is some way we can also educate our locally elected school board members (who serve the community) regarding the issues associated with high stakes, standardized measures of success? An approach like this may have been attempted before. If so, I’d like to learn more about it. But, what would this approach look like? Could students serve as the channels through which information regarding standardized achievement tests is shared with school board members? So many questions.

Of course, this type of adjustment on the part of the school board could have potential economic implications. These scores are used as indicators of how well a school is doing. Realtors use this information to determine if certain areas are “good” areas for homeowners. For many realtors, “the schools are good” is a major selling point. You don’t ever really hear them say, “this school is one of the most creative schools around,” or “this school’s approach to project-based learning is terrific!” Realtors aren’t educators, so it may be unrealistic to expect them to know these things. But, as the school board looks out for the best of the community, they want schools that perform well. At this point in time, performing well means obtaining high scores on standardized achievement tests. It’s a vicious cycle. Can it ever be broken or changed?

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