Sunday, August 21, 2005

High-stakes test

I get to go back to work on Wednesday, so I've been thinking a lot about school, education and the political demands for schools. There is much to say on this topic, but today I'm going to focus on high-stakes testing.

In an effort to improve schools, both Britain and America have moved toward high-stakes testing to ensure that students are learning. I believe these high-stakes tests are a complete waste of time, more on that below, but they also set up an impossible dichotomy for teachers. Let me explain, to complete the equivalent of high school in Britain students must pass their "A-levels". The test is structured to allow students to take exams in 3 or more subjects (English, Biology, Math, etc).

On Thursday, the results were announced. There was a modest rise in A-level passes to 96.2% of entries, up 0.2 of a percentage point from the previous year. That would seem to be excellent. 96 out of 100 students completing high school has a proficiency in at least 3 subjects and improvement over last year! If only America were to have that kind of pass rate. Parents and the media must be out of their mind with such a phenomenal showing, right? There must be story after story on television and in print about the wonderful job the teachers are doing to prepare students for these test, right?


One example of the dominate story line is today's lengthy editorial in The Business that the tests are too easy. What else could explain the high pass rate? It couldn't be that teachers have been teaching or that students have been studying. No! It must be that the tests are too easy.

Yet, imagine the flip side...say only 55% of the students passed. Would The Business and similiar media organizations be lamenting the difficulty of the tests? Absolutely not. The editorial pages would be lit up with articles about how teachers are failing the students. Even though 96% of all high schoolers are leaving with at least 3 proficiencies, politically, this is a no-win situation for teachers.

As I said above, I'm firmly convinced these high stakes tests are a complete waste of time. They measure a student's ability to consume and regurgitate facts. Sure, some questions require analysis and complex thinking, but the vast majority of standardized tests are based around easily assessable and transferrable questions (read...multiple choice, T/F, etc).

In a world where Google is only as far away as your computer or mobile phone, facts are useless. Anyone with an idea about keyword searching can find out anything about anything. With Wikipedia adding tens of thousands of entries every day, it won't be long before that is the first place anyone looks for information. We are in the Age of Information. It is almost impossible to "know" everything or even control who has access to information.

For a better political and economic society, we need students that can do something with information. Students that can analyze, synthesize and evaluate information. High-stakes do not assess that!

But let's move beyond just simply "knowledge". We also need people that can communicate ideas, work together, deal with conflict, etc. I talked with a Vice-President of Human Resources at a HMO who said he'd hire a guy that had those interpersonal skills without the knowledge for a position over a guy with knowledge, but without the interpersonal skills. It wasn't that the knowledge wasn't important, but only that it was easy to teach someone the knowledge than interpersonal skills. Again, High-stakes do not assess that!

Don't read this attack on high-stakes testing as an apologist for the lousy state some of our pubic schools are in. To have 20-30% of students drop out of high school functionally illiterate is a humilation to the teaching profession. I just don't believe high-stakes test will get America the future citizens we need.