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It’s that happy STAR test season again!

It’s that happy season again, STAR testing time, when kids across California sit in a room and fill in bubbles with #2 pencils. The kid think they just have pencils in their hands. But in this era of NCLB, students actually hold the fate of their teachers, schools, and districts in their sweaty little palms. Parents fret that kids think these tests are too important. Teachers fret that their students might not take them seriously enough. District officials fret if the mix of skin colors that show up for the test tilts too far to one side, and hope that the parents from the wealthy side of their school’s neighborhood haven’t decided to keep their kids home “sick.”

I have strong memories from my years of standardized tests. In the third grade, I took a statewide standardized test that informed me that I should become a mathematician. I was crushed. I knew I wanted to be a writer—did this mean I couldn’t do that? I didn’t tell anyone of my fear, but you can bet I made sure not to like math nearly as much as I did before.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper about cultural bias in testing. The theme was suggested to me when, as a volunteer at a local school with a high immigrant population, I administered an “English” test to a girl from Venezuela. One question showed a picture of a girl in ice skates standing next to a sign that said, “Danger: Thin ice.” My sweet little student looked puzzled, and asked me, pointing at her eyes, “ice?” Well, yeah. She’d never seen a frozen lake before. Or ice skates.

Did I mention that this test had been developed for Puerto Rican children in New York? That was in the eighties, when cultural bias was just starting to be understood.

I remember when a few years later, my 100% English fluent boyfriend had to take the TOEFL as part of applying to grad school, since he was a non-resident from a non-English speaking country. He said that the recording they listened to was so bad, he couldn’t understand half of it. And his English was so fluent, few people knew he wasn’t born and raised here.

In case you missed this part, the TOEFL is supposed to test how well people understand English, not how extra-sharp their hearing is.

Despite all this, I don’t hate standardized tests and think they should be abolished. They have a job that they do well, when they are designed well to do that job. The job they do well is offer up a number correlating to how many correct answers a person got on a specific day on a subject that can be tested with multiple choice answers. Subjects that can be tested well are basic math skills (though ambiguously worded word problems are always a problem) and subject mastery (details of disciplines like biology). As long as the test-writers don’t try to make the test interesting by including cultural information (my daughter refuses ever to answer a math problem involving football, a game she has never seen played), some basic picture of the student’s knowledge and skills can be created.

The problem is, Americans have jumped on standardized tests like we built the railroad to the West: full steam ahead, don’t worry about how many Chinese laborers you hurt in the process. We have this idea that the tests can tell us something about how well the students think (impossible), how well their teachers teach (ridiculous), and whether their district should be allowed to continue administering their own schools. On the basis of standardized tests, we are told that our government can fire everyone working at a school (Ed. Secretary Arne Duncan’s pet project), as if having kids turn up to learn from strangers will somehow scare their brains into compliance. On the basis of standardized tests, we think that we can decide which teachers need more pay, and which should be fired.

Furthermore, the different parts of our government are making decisions independent of each other, so they end up using testing like a carpenter who uses a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. California’s STAR test is designed to measure students against each other. It’s designed to put 50% of the kids taking it under the line, and 50% over. When they try out new questions on the STAR test, they don’t want to see if it’s a good question based on whether kids get it right. They want to see if it’s a tricky enough question that the right number of kids get it wrong. So when your child is in the 50th percentile of the STAR math portion, for example, that says that half the kids did better, half the kids did worse.

No Child Left Behind, however, stipulates that all schools must get 100% of their students above proficiency. How do you test proficiency? You give kids questions based on what you think they should know, and if 80% of them get it right, you say, Wow, our schools are doing OK. You don’t say, Wait, we need to make that question less clear so that not so many kids get it right. But that’s what the STAR does. If you don’t believe me, download their sample questions and take the test. You’ll find ambiguities and obscure elements all over it. Any thinking kid takes this test and finds that even in sections that should be clear, such as math, there are ambiguities. The test is not trying to figure out what they know: it’s trying to trick them into failing.

We’ll be doing STAR tests this year. Our district is pressuring our little program (which officially doesn’t have to test because we are happily “statistically insignificant”) to get our testing numbers up. They don’t seem to care about our scores. They care about those cute little tushies warming chairs, grasping #2 pencils, and filling in enough bubbles to make it valid. It’s a silly game. We homeschoolers, if we’re doing our jobs well, know what our students’ strengths and weaknesses are. Last year, I laughed when I saw my daughter’s STAR math results – they were exactly what I would have predicted. Luckily, my daughter actually thinks the tests are fun (and looks forward to the popsicles handed out afterwards), and my son has grudgingly agreed to waste time that would be much better spent on his computer, just to humor me.

But we all know what game we’re playing: We’re not testing them to find out what they know. We’re testing them to make a bureaucrat happy. And if my kids’ good scores help their school and district a little bit, well, I’m OK with that. But these tests, I make sure they know, are meaningless in the scope of things.

Even if they get in the 99th percentile in math, as I did in third grade, I’m not going to announce to them that I know what their career path should be. No test can tell me something about my kids that I don’t already know just by talking to them, working with them, and loving them.

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.

5 Responses

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  1. Shawna says

    I too am happy to have my kid warm the seat. he gets to mark in the book and not do bubbles, and he takes it alone with his IST or another teacher. He usually does well even with his Learning disabilities. I do it happily for the services he receives from the district.
    He hates the getting there, but seems to like the challenge of showing what he knows. Most years he feels good when he is finished.
    I don’t think they show much, but some times we have to do things to get what we want. We want the services, so we go willingly.

  2. Daily Citron says

    Here’s another reason to take them- the show how adept the student is at taking standardized tests, which could be helpful information as the student gets older and faces more tests that would affect the ease with which he or she gets into college.
    -Viva recently posted 99 Is Not 100

  3. Suki says

    I agree that test-taking is an important skill. However, it’s not one you need to practice all year long, every year! At the private school my son attended for a while, they had students take a standardized test in (I think) 3rd and 7th grades. Those are good choices, I think: In 3rd you can catch problems with literacy, reading comprehension, basic number sense. In 7th you can make sure that all the math is down solid before starting algebra, check on mastery of vocabulary, etc. Then in high school you can give a couple of practice runs on the SAT. That is just about as much standardized testing as any kid needs, if you’re talking about benefiting the kids. But the people NCLB’s yearly testing requirements are benefiting are the shareholders of Pearson.

  4. Pamela Jorrick says

    I had a much stronger aversion to the STAR test when my kids were younger. As a 2nd grader, my daughter, who was a fluent reader was frustrated that the facilitator had to read the entire test aloud to her. She just wanted to read it herself. A few years later, my son, who was more of a listener than reader at that age, was supposed to read about 50 pages by himself, with none read aloud to him, although he was also in 2nd grade.

    That made no sense to me, but then the facilitator, who meant well, but knew that many of the children would not be able to finish all that reading, told them to just read what they could and guess on the rest- then they could have snacks and go to the playground. All they heard was “guess, snacks, and playground. Nearly every kid in the room just filled in bubbles without even trying. I didn’t want the kid to stress about it, but I did at least want them to give it some effort.

    The same year, my older child bombed the writing test with the prompt “Why do you think this was a good title for this story.” She had not thought it was good at all, but they told her she couldn’t say that. Instead of asking her to just write about her thoughts on it, they wanted her to defend something she thought was dumb. The test came back with poor results, although she had won several writing contests that same year. I decided they were too young to play the game and we went solo for a few years.
    Now, they are older and we are back with a charter. At this point, the benefits are worth it. They are enough to understand jumping through hoops and figure it is part of their job for the resources they get throughout the year.

    I still think it’s a lame assessment though.

  5. Suki says

    That’s a great example of how flawed the writing test is! Writing is so personal, and to ask a child to defend something she doesn’t believe is ridiculous. It’s actually a very advanced ability, to be able to argue the side of an argument that you don’t agree with. Not something a 4th grader should be expected to do. So they should have let her write what she wanted, and graded her on how well she made her argument. I taught argumentative writing at Cal State, and that was a huge part of what I did the first day: explaining to my students how I could grade them on their writing even if I disagreed with my opinions. Some students always came in assuming that I had a strong point of view that would bias me against their writing. But I often found myself giving good grades to kids whose POV I didn’t agree with, and poor grades to those I did, simply because their arguments were not well supported.

    What I told my kids before the writing test was this: Do your best, have fun with it, write as much as you can because length impresses them, and check your spelling one more time before handing it in. I’m looking forward to seeing their scores, though if past performance is an indicator, I have probably already predicted what they’ll be….

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