Thursday, November 04, 2004

The finger pointing at the moon

The main question of NCLB is not, in my mind, whether or not testing should be conducted. It must be. If you don't like testing (and I don't) then think of it as a necessary evil. It's indispensable. The real question is not "To test or not to test" but rather "How much testing is reasonable?"

Consider this excellent post from

...[T]he Region's Science Superintendent (or whatever she's called) reminded us that in 2007-08, NCLB requires that all states begin testing students yearly in science. Immediately, questions flooded my brain:

What will the sequence of courses be? Will it be the same as the current sequence in New York City - life science in sixth grade, physical science in seventh, earth science in eighth?
Will New York State keep it's eighth grade Intermediate Level Science Exam, which is only four years old, or will that be replaced?
Will the exams include performance tasks like the ILS Exam does?

I took a few minutes later in the day to ask one of the science administrators my questions. She understood what I was getting at, but said that no one knows yet... not even the state. It seems to me that if these exams are for real, we must begin preparing teachers and students for them now. After all, this year's fifth graders will be in 8th grade in 07-08, so if the sequence of courses is going to change, it would be wise to start them on the new sequence next year.

New York State tests students in science in 4th grade and 8th grade, and then yearly in high school for the Regents courses. I happen to like the ILS Exam. I think it sets fairly reasonable expectations, it is grounded in current research on best practices in science education, and that it has begun to force/inspire more middle schools to provide the resources and time for good science education. Students must use at least a few basic scientific instruments before they leave the 8th grade, and they must have basic knowledge of experimental design. Although some schools and teachers are teaching to the test and missing the big picture, I still think in the long run it will foster positive change in how science is taught.

I am strongly against yearly testing.

People outside of education don't seem to understand the amount of time that goes into preparing for and administering a standardized test. Even if the test is only an hour long, test days are basically only about the tests. Teachers and students alike are too keyed up to get anything else done on a test day. Having yearly tests in every subject area means 5 or 6 - or more - days of testing, plus make-up days when kids are pulled from their regular classes, plus practice tests mandated by the city, region/district, or state, plus test prep mandated by the administration or the region/district, plus the teacher's own test-oriented lessons... a small part of this is worthwhile. The rest of it, I believe, is often time spent learning "test conventions" and "the genre of tests," time which ought to have been spent in learning real skills and knowledge. My strategy in preparing for the ILS Exam has been to tailor the
curriculum over three years to prepare my students, and I think they will do pretty well. Nevertheless, I will still have to take some time in the weeks before the test to familiarize my students with the format of the test and strategies specific to the types of questions they are likely to see. That's not really science, but it will make a difference in their scores. Doing that for a week or two in eighth grade is fine with me. Doing it every year would be a colossal waste of time!

In addition, I believe that test quality drops the more often tests are given, especially when they are rushed into place as most of the NCLB-mandated tests have been. The ILS Exam strikes me as a pretty high-quality test. I seriously doubt that the same quality could be achieved if the test companies had to produce a test for grade 5, a different test for grade 6, another for grade 7, and another for grade 8, update them yearly, score them accurately, include questions for calibration, pilot new items, etc. I helped score ILS Exams my first year teaching. Because of the new "constructed response" (short answer) questions, scoring the exams is a long process that cannot be done by a machine. Yet it is the constructed response and performance questions that make the exam state of the art. To grade four years' worth of science tests would require many, many hours of work by hundreds or thousands of people across the state - and the funding to pay each of us for that time. Sometimes, teachers are pulled out of their teaching assignments for a few days to score standardized tests, leaving the students with substitutes. The other option would be to revert to straight multiple choice tests which emphasize absorption of large amounts of content over understanding how to do science and explain concepts in your own words.

Finally, yearly tests would run the risk of trying to include far more content than any teacher is likely to teach in a year, which would create an incentive for "covering" material rather than really teaching it.

I don't like the prospect of yearly science testing, not one bit. But if we must have it, I sincerely hope they prepare us for it well in advance. I think we should begin to get a sense of what the new test regimen will look like at least two years before the first set of tests. That is probably wishful thinking, though.

This strikes me as eminently reasonable. Testing -- if the tests are well designed -- can be a spur for good teaching. But too much of a good thing can turn bad. Yearly testing creates a perpetual state of test preparation in classrooms and encourages teachers, as Ms. Frizzle pointed out, to cover material rather than really teach it.

One test every three or four years can show whether or not schools, teachers, and students are on the right track, and allow for educators to make adjustments when necessary. More than that can, and usually does in the many ways she describes, actually impede learning.

I think we're mistaking -- to use one of my favorite Buddhist analogies -- the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. The tests point to the learning going on, but we shouldn't confuse testing with the learning itself.


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