Sunday, September 28, 2008

Call For Action: Authentic Standardized Assessment

We need better standardized assessments. Which is truly an indictment on two things. As many would quickly assume, this is an indictment on the ITBS and ITEDs. But it is equally an indictment on the areas those tests don't cover, which are then covered by inadequate locally-made exams (if at all). Neither are appropriate.

In Iowa, we (mainly) measure our proficiency with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Iowa Test of Educational Development, or ITBS and ITEDs. Published by Riverside at the University of Iowa, they have long been used as a norm-referenced test to measure student achievement in the classroom. With the advent of No Child Left Behind, the ITEDs/ITBS were suddenly used as the official achievement tests for accountability purposes. If students did not perform well on the tests, schools now faced consequences.

While there are tests in social studies, reading materials, and language, more and more schools are not taking those tests, as only math, reading, and science are required. Many outspoken critics of NCLB have mentioned that testing becomes a shell game, as schools teach to the test (or more linguistically correct, teach the test), and marginalize other curriculum for the sake of proficiency. More importantly in my estimation, they marginalize other students. Iowa requires being at the 41st percentile to be considered proficient, and a school needs a large proportion of its students to be proficient (79.3% in 11th grade, for example). From a statistical point of view, the students who are most likely to make a difference for a school are those students who are between the 20th-50th percentile. Many districts are implementing programs like Second Chance Reading, or Remedial Math to help those students, while not addressing the needs of the solidly proficient, let alone those who are in the top 10 or bottom 10 percentile. This is the equivalent to Obama and McCain putting all their money and resources into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia, because the other states don't matter.

In James Popham's The Truth About Testing, he points out several problems with using tests like the ITBS/ITEDs as measures for accountability. They are a snapshot in time and could easily be thrown off by external factors (like whether the student eat breakfast that day). By being a normed-reference test, they require testing elements that separate students for validity, or in other words, questions need to have students miss. While NCLB wants all students to get the question right, Riverside would consider the questions awful if everyone got them right. (The test has not been re-normed since being used for accountability, by the way.) Moreover, tests have large amounts of bias for intelligence and social-economic status that cannot be distilled. While Popham says standardized data are useful, they just are not reliable for accountability.

In brief, I not only agree with Popham, I could also add several other reasons why they are not valuable. But that's not the subject of my post. I strongly feel schools should be accountable, and that schools should use standardized tests. They just need to be authentic ones.

There isn't a more un-authentic test than a multiple choice test. When was the last time you took one? Seriously? High school? What job requires proficiency via multiple choice tests?

We show our proficiency in the world through our performance. Can you compose an essay that illustrates the reasons why I should be for a particular argument? Can you create a pamphlet that gives the reader instructions on how to complete the task? Can you draw a conclusion through a set of laboratory experiments? Can you grow strawberries in your agriculture class? Multiple choice, at best, is a tool for formative assessment, and is primarily overused by teachers because it is wildly convenient.

And, that's why we use multiple choice tests for accountability... because they are convenient. A scantron can score them. To those who would say convenience has to be considered from a financial standpoint, I could not object more. Flat out, that convenience hurts kids.

So I propose a call for action. Let's establish quality authentic assessments for all our schools. To do this, we must have standards that we deem are essential for the world. The Iowa Core Curriculum, I feel, will do that for us. But unless we then have quality authentic assessments, how will we know how students are performing?

Let's look at an example. When I say a student "must be able to use technology to solve a variety of problems" as my educational standard, how do I know students are successful at this? The two options that are currently out there are inadequate. An ITED-esque standardized test won't tell us. But moreover, a locally-made criterion-test (aka "a teacher test") won't tell us either. We have no way knowing how well a school's instruction compares to other schools with locally made tests.

Right now, technology literacy, as defined by the federal government, must be measured in 8th grade. And it is a joke. I've seen quite a few school districts who use a random assignment or a class grade as the proficiency exam. These districts have no way of being able to tell me "Yes, Johnny has met the standards for technology and is ready for the world". We need a performance-based set of examinations that address the technology standards. Every technology teacher in the state will be aware of them, and therefore will help their students prepare for those. It creates the most apples-for-apples comparison out there. And, technology is not the only field. Writing, financial literacy, civics, scientific thinking, physical education, and the fine arts all need this as well. Until then, we continue to mis-prepare our students for the world.

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