Why tests matter

In the wake of a scoring mess on Florida’s state test for third graders. St. Petersburg Times columnist Ron Matus defends the need for tests, not just grades, to show which students aren’t learning what they need to be successful. He points out that surveys show grades are up by a third for high school seniors in the last 15 years, while reading scores are down on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Not long ago, a Pinellas County teacher I like and respect was telling me about a student in his remedial reading class, a well-mannered 17-year-old who had failed ninth grade twice but came back for a third try. The kid was reading at an elementary-school level and not making progress. And yet, he was on the honor roll.

The teacher gave the kid a B for trying. He said he didn’t want to discourage him.

“It’s complicated, ” he said.

Not really.

For many kids – especially poor and minority kids – the consequences of inaccurate grades are much more dire. Doesn’t it mean, ultimately, that they won’t get the help they need and deserve?

At many high schools in Florida, it’s not uncommon for two-thirds of all ninth- and 10th-graders to flunk the FCAT in reading. Remember: This is a basic skills test. And yet, only a small percentage of those students are flunked by their teachers. In other words, they can’t read on a high school level, yet they continue to pass their classes on a steady track to a high school diploma.

But it must be the FCAT that’s wrong, right?

Via Education Gadfly.

Matus mentions columns by Bill Maxwell, a fellow columnist who spent two years trying to start a journalism program at Stillman College, a “historically black” college in Alabama. In his first and second year, Maxwell found all but a few of his students had graduated from high school without basic reading and writing skills. With a few exceptions, they also lacked the work habits and motivation. Maxwell, who grew up in a migrant farmworker family, remembers how much he and his classmates at a small black college in Texas valued the chance to get an education. That culture is kept alive by a few Stillman students, he writes. But not many.

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  1. Standardized tests are needed but it has gotten out of control. My wife’s Jr High takes the LEAP, IOWA and CAT tests. It’s too much.

    Many times tests don’t match curriculum, which don’t match the text books. There needs to be some common sense in the standardized testing but apparently that is lacking the educational bureaucracy.

  2. HBCU, the acronym for Historically Black Colleges and Universities is actually a legal designation for certain colleges established by the feds. Prior to integration these universities were the only places in which blacks in the US could get a degree and for federal funding purposes they currently operate under a different regulations than other universities, although I can’t quote you the exact law.

    I guess I’m just saying that because you’ve got it in quotes for some reason. To someone who has worked at an HCBU or is otherwise familiar with them seeing it in quotes is like seeing someone say,

    Your son’s “primary” school.
    My neighbor is “hispanic.”

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    I teach 9th grade and it is maddening how many students come into high school not being able to write two logically connected sentences, or to do simple arithmetic, e.g. add two fractions. Many of them never catch up.

    So my suggestion for how to replace NCLB: The feds give a middle school diploma. To get it, a student must show that she can read and write at an eighth level, and do eighth grade math. The feds get to make up that battery of tests, and they accept no other evidence.

    Federal education money then only goes to systems where every student in grades 9-12 has a federal diploma.

    It would sure make my life easier.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    That solves everything – hand it to the Feds.

  5. The feds get to make up that battery of tests, and they accept no other evidence.

    Since the test will certainly have input from all interested parties it’s logical to expect the folks who’d be hurt by a good test to object to its use. That’s not the spin that’ll be put on the objections of course but the effect’ll be the same.

    Since the opponents of a good test will be hurt by it specifically and society’s gain will be distributed across all of society you can expect this particular special interest group to fight like hell to make sure the they own the test. The other side, by contrast, won’t have anywhere near the concentration of interest.

    Result? Lousy test that measures nothing and becomes another impediment in the path of directing the public education system in the direction of higher attainments.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    That solves everything – hand it to the Feds.

    Actually, the thought was to take a lot from the feds: all the “adequate yearly progress” and “highly qualified teacher” mandates and such. Students would have to show evidence of certain skills. How the students developed those skills would–at least in my utopia–be up to the teacher, school, system, and state.

    We have a tremendous conflict of interest now. The same systems that teach grade students on what they have learned. This is implicitly a grade on how well the students have been taught. There is a certain equilibrium. Students are graded so that most pass and go on to the next grade. This doesn’t mean they can actually read, write, or do math at a requisite level.

    Alas, allen brings up a probably fatal objection: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who grades the federal graders? Who makes sure that they themselves keep up standards? I implicitly assumed that “eighth grade level” is uncontroversial and unchanging–and that the feds would have the, um, intestinal fortitude to stick to the standard even if half of the nation’s potential middle school graduates don’t meet it.

    I think there is enough history that most people in the business know what “eighth grade level” means now. Would there be unbearable pressure to fudge the standards so most everyone passes? Well …

  7. I read both of Bill Maxwell’s articles that were linked above, and I’m now seriously depressed. It seems like every college I either work at or observe, there are a few students who are motivated and reasonably prepared for college — but for every one of those, there are five or six who only seem to care about a linear combination of sex, sports, and alcohol. And colleges seem perfectly happy to let this proportion continue. Something has got to change in the culture of education today or the whole thing is going to crash in the next decade.