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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

Standardized Test Scores Reveal Politics, Not Education

The Stanford 9 has become a repressive and domineering emperor with no clothes. Why doesn't somebody notice?

October 22, 2000|MICHAEL VETRIE | Michael Vetrie, who lives in Sylmar, was the California Continuation Education Assn. Teacher of the Year 2000

In agreeing to give more money to a school when its students improve their performance on the Stanford 9, the state has concluded that increasing scores on this standardized test somehow equates to increasing the educational level of the school's students.

Unfortunately, the only sound inference that can be drawn from an increase in test scores on the Stanford 9 is that there has been an increase in test scores on the Stanford 9. Standardized tests like the Stanford 9 do not measure anything with much accuracy or even spur kids to learn more.

What is covered on the test is, as yet, not keyed into state standards. Because the test does not conform to the curriculum, the tendency is to narrow the curriculum to force it to conform with the test. Using valuable class time to teach to the test forces out other, more important learning activities. Thus the test tends to discourage effective teaching and meaningful, engaged learning.

The only objective part of the test is the scoring, which is done by computer. Someone has to decide what's going to be on the test, how to word the questions and the correct answer. Standardized tests tend to be biased in favor of those whose culture and upbringing most closely resemble that of the test makers--in most cases, white middle-class males who live in urban areas. Such tests are typically biased against females, children of color, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and children living in rural areas.

In any case, the point of a good assessment tool is not to be objective but to be very subjective. To know the curriculum being taught and to assess whether the student has mastered it is a very subjective undertaking.

The primary purpose of the Stanford 9 is not to assess the curriculum taught in a particular school in a subjective or objective manner but to rank or order students, their teachers and the school. The test is designed to ensure that some will be labeled a success, others a failure and the vast majority mediocre. If this assessment does not resemble the bell or "normal" curve, the test is "renormed." The test is designed to focus attention on what students do not know and cannot do, in very unrealistic situations. It does not tell us what we really need to know to increase individual students' learning.

Schools quickly learn how to skew results by teaching kids test-taking tricks (guess at answers you don't know because wrong answers don't affect the score), retaining students in lower grades so their scores will look better or selecting out students who will not score well.

For many children, standardized tests such as the Stanford 9 result in a life sentence to remedial practice ("drill and kill") in special classes or lower-ability groupings or tracks.

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A recent report from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future showed use of such test-based reforms as the Stanford 9 in many states had no effect on student achievement while states that invested in teaching produced large increases in achievement.

Monty Neil and Joe Medinal of FairTest, a testing watchdog organization based in Cambridge, Mass., go a step further by arguing that "teaching behaviors that are effective in raising scores on tests of lower-level cognitive skills (the multiple-choice questions common in standardized tests) are nearly the opposite of those behaviors that are effective in developing complex cognitive learning, problem-solving ability and creativity." In other words, what you have to do to raise test scores is exactly the opposite of what you should do in the classroom to encourage creativity and develop complex thinking and problem solving.

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Despite the evidence of the inadequacies of standardized testing from organizations like FairTest and the Coalition of Essential Schools (to which I am indebted for the facts of this article), our state politicians and educational leaders continue to follow after the Stanford 9 as it parades through educational district after district, forcing costly decisions based upon a bankrupted concept, its results published as a form of public flogging for the schools that don't fit its profile of success.

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