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We Live and Breathe Testing

December 21, 2010

What follows in this blog post is a series of emails I exchanged with a friend who teaches in Los Angeles.  I’ve edited the content to eliminate extraneous material, and to protect this person’s identity, for reasons my correspondent mentions in one of the messages.  This teacher has not always taught in Los Angeles, and so I asked for some observations about the differences.  My messages are in plain text, and the responses are italicized.  (These emails were not originally written for publication, and so they retain a certain informality in diction and style).

Dear [Friend],

Do you keep up with the politics and policy in LAUSD and other local districts?  Charter schools, magnets, etc.?  I’m always interested in understanding various perspectives around everything going on down there, so if you have a moment or two to share any thoughts, I’d love to hear.

Hi, David.

Sure, what questions do you have about schools?  Ever since I’ve joined [a Los Angeles school] , I’ve learned so much about LAUSD.  One thing that we obsess about … is the CST [California Standards Test].  All principals are evaluated on their school’s improvement on CST scores.  If there is no improvement, they are moved to another school in 2-3 years.

Hey [Friend] –

Does anyone acknowledge that the CSTs are crap, though?  That’s what scares me.  Parents mostly don’t understand the CSTs but tend to have an interest in the right priorities for their own children’s learning.  But when they talk about other schools and become “the public” or the voters, they boil it down to test scores.  So, politicians either buy that theory – test scores = learning – or they admit that they don’t but they fear looking soft on “accountability” if they don’t play the game.  So the superintendents and site administrators all have to march to that tune, even though so many people involved recognize how counterproductive it has been.  You know quite well that [top schools’ students] aren’t scoring well on CSTs by virtue of …  adherence to standards.  Rather, they’ve developed reading skills more organically, mostly at home, and through reading to learn.  They get literature, field trips, cool projects, enrichment programs, etc.  Test prep is for “other people’s children.”   Principals work and work on those test scores to keep their jobs, and can’t take the risk of doing the right thing to grow other language skills and other types of learning because the test results might not come through high enough or fast enough – not because they’d be making bad choices about education, but because the tests miss so much more than they measure.

Oh no, David!

Teachers cannot admit that the CSTs are crap.  There is no choice but to buy into this system of standardized testing.  We live it & breathe it.  I was shocked by this kind of serious attitude towards standardized tests because we weren’t pressured at all to teach to the test [in my prior district].  Down here in LA, every teacher knows the school’s API [academic performance index] and AYP [adequate yearly progress] score.  Every school has to set an AYP score [goal] &, at our school, we have to post “[a motivational slogan]” in our classrooms!  Our CST scores rose 70 points last year […].  Yet there are studies that show that test gains do not guarantee retention, & students usually end up forgetting what they learn after 6 months […].

All of our sophomores take a CAHSEE [California High School Exit Exam] class.  All the CAHSEE teacher teaches is the CAHSEE!

Yes, we don’t have any enrichment class except for an art class.  We have to post the standard and objective of the day on the board.  We have to teach to a set of high-priority standards on a pacing guide.  Even the students are supposed to be able to explain the standard.  Ha!  Ask any English teacher to explain one English standard & he’ll be stumped!  Every 10 weeks, our kids take quarterly benchmarks, as do all the schools in the [multi-school charter operator] system. They are tested on the set of high-priority standards for that quarter.  I’ve seen questions from the benchmark.  I would definitely not be able to come up with questions like that, & I wouldn’t want to.  The schools are  compared against one another, we have a PD day to look over & discuss the scores, & we get 2 days to re-teach the standards we messed up on.

I don’t have anything against standards-based learning.  Although there are too many English Standards, I think teachers need guidelines for what to teach.  But I don’t like that the only measure to test the standard is a quantitative test.  People throw around the word “data-driven” a lot, and I hate that decisions are “data-driven.”  There’s a lot that CST scores DON’T show.  I don’t feel that looking at data helps us become better teachers, but I’d get publicly castigated for sharing that with anyone at this school, let alone this district.

The kids become automatons.  They’re working towards an arbitrary goal that is the CAHSEE and CST, neither of which help them become college-ready.

That’s about as bleak as it gets, [Friend].  When does it end?

I was at a conference this summer and a rather young department chair/teaching coach from Texas was sitting next to me, talking about how she and her team use data to improve instruction.  (I mention her youth only to suggest that she likely has spent her whole career in a system like this).  She said they had the data broken down by gender and ethnicity, and they might analyze it to try to figure out why African-American males in one class are doing better or worse on one a particular test item or a particular goal/standard.  So, let’s set aside for the moment that tests are likely to misidentify the standard(s) they think a certain item measures.  (Skilled test takers rarely read the passages that are provided – they simply deconstruct the elements as necessary to answer the questions.  Many vocabulary types of questions are far too arbitrary and too limited to give useful information about an individual student).  The next set of assumptions is also problematic, in terms of how race and gender may be operating, whether or not sample sizes that small allow valid interpretations, etc.  And actually, the first thing I thought to myself was, “why not ask the kids why they missed the question?”

Anyways, this is a grim topic today, and probably tomorrow… but I have to believe that the pendulum will swing.  I sure hope we can push it along its way.

With that in mind, may I use your email as an anonymous contribution to my blog?

Sure, you can use my response.

This is the sad state of affairs now:  the tests are supposed to be one piece of information, a way of measuring what’s happening in the school, district, region or state; now, the tests have become the curriculum.  Are there readers out there with similar experiences?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol Mikoda permalink
    December 21, 2010 3:39 am

    My experience in New York State parallels that reflected in your friend’s e-mails. I was so frustrated after two years of data driven learning “communities” a la Richard Dufour and friends that I left to get a doctorate.

    I was wondering if you could provide some citations so I can track down the research supporting these statements:

    “Skilled test takers rarely read the passages that are provided – they simply deconstruct the elements as necessary to answer the questions. Many vocabulary types of questions are far too arbitrary and too limited to give useful information about an individual student.”

    Thanks for your brave and inspiring posts.
    Carol

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      December 23, 2010 12:42 pm

      Hi Carol – regarding the quote you asked about, I’m relying on personal observations from the past decade – both as a proctor for the tests, and based on conversations with students afterwards. Some teachers who actually provide instruction on testing strategies have confirmed they coach this technique as well. First off, I just watch high school students taking the tests, flying through the reading portions at speeds that preclude any actual reading. And really, with nothing on the line and a chance to close your test and read something else for fun, or to study, or to take a short nap, why would you read every word of a 3-4 page passage you’re not interested in? Cut to the questions, then go back and search for the answers. In some cases, they’re not even passages, but rather “informational materials” that almost no one would read straight through anyways – which begs the question is this a “reading” test or a reasoning test – figuring out which section of the document will have the information you’re seeking. That kind of reasoning may be part of reading, but the test prep for reading fake documents is likely to be dull and unchallenging, and not focused on real academic skills as much as simple test score improvement. Then on the vocabulary questions, you can’t get a decent sense of an individual student’s vocabulary from 5-10 questions. You might luck out and ask words the kids knows, or with bad luck, a bunch the kid doesn’t know. The tests have some usefulness in guaging the overall vocabulary level of a whole grade level or school, but too much variability on the level of a single kid. The test results for one student aren’t as likely to be reliable, as a different set of words could produce a very different result. In other cases, the tests are useless because you can’t tell what the problem is from an incorrect answer. Sometimes the test publishers say a question is aligned to a certain standard, but it’s not. For example, we’re supposed to teach Greek and Latin roots for vocabulary – which is a fine idea. But when they ask those questions on a standardized test, they can’t really determine if the child knows the word naturally (the way most of us learn a word like “technique”), or by virtue of knowing the root “techne“). On my son’s practice test, they provided a biographical reading passage and then asked what made it biographical. You could answer the question correctly by knowing the term “biography” or by reading the passage. If a child misses the question, what is the remedy?

  2. JHoover permalink
    December 21, 2010 6:57 am

    I’m in a similar situation. My kids take two major tests during their junior year and everything SHUTS DOWN during that time. We are supposed to refer to the standards 3 times per day, kids are supposed to be able to explain it too. Administrators walk in the room and ask students, if they aren’t able to state the standard, this reflects poorly on the teacher.

    I didn’t get into teaching to teach kids how to take tests. That’s all I do and I’m BEYOND sick and tired of it.

  3. Lea permalink
    December 21, 2010 10:27 am

    We have pacing guides in my Orange County district and Paced Standards Assessments on the every 35 days. That is the curriculum. We have to teach out of order in the (outdated) textbooks. The goal of the pacing guides is to get everyone through the curriculum before the CSTS and the goal of the PSAs is to make sure everyone is doing it. We’re supposed to post class results in our classrooms and individual results, but I don’t post either. I keep it in a binder in case anyone asks for it, but that’s it.

    It basically comes down to a choice between teaching to the pacing guide and getting dinged on the tests because it was taught too quickly for real understanding or teach to understanding on few topics and get dinged on the parts they’ve never seen. Or at least haven’t seen since last year and have since purged from the memory cells. My 6th graders were just tested on multiplying and dividing mixed numbers, all operations with decimals, solving equations with fractions and decimals, ratios, setting up and solving proportions and proportions with similar figures, percentages with tips, taxes, and discounts, and comparing fractions and decimals. They were gone for 4 days for Outdoor Science School and they were tested before the 75th day to get it done before break, so we were really screwed.

    It’s awful and I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. This is not what I got into teaching to do.

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