What tests are best?

Under No Child Left Behind, tests don’t measure what’s important, writes Susan Engel, director of the teaching program at Williams College, in a New York Times op-ed.

Instead, we should come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: The ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.

Hooey, responds Katharine Beals of Out in Left Field.

Completely absent from Engel’s proposals is content knowledge — unless “dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live” includes things like world geography, American history, and current events in Pakistan. This, despite the fact that the latest cognitive science research indicates that “higher level” skills neither develop, nor apply, independently of structured, information-rich content.

Also absent are such specific skills as penmanship, decoding, sentence construction, foreign language fluency, balancing chemical equations, and finding the roots to quadratic equations.

A good multiple-choice test can measure “specific skills and rich, structured, factual knowledge,” Beals writes.

But Engel wants to measure students’ vocabulary and grammatical complexity by sampling their writing. These are developmental skills, not academic skills taught by teachers, argues Beals.

Engel suggests having children “Write a description of yourself from your mother’s point of view” in order to “gauge the child’s ability to understand the perspectives of others.”

Again, it’s not clear what purpose this assessment serves–beyond identifying who is and who isn’t on the autistic spectrum.

Similarly problematic is Engel’s proposal to measure reading comprehension levels by having children do an oral reconstruction of a story to a “trained examiner.” What about shy children; what about children were struggle to express themselves orally?

Engel’s proposal to measure literacy levels by “testing a child’s ability to identify the names of actual authors amid the names of non-authors” makes sense only if all students are taught a core curriculum including these authors, Beals writes. Otherwise, this testing penalizes socio-economically disadvantaged children.

It seems to me that school tests should measure what’s taught in school to see if children are getting it. Jaden doesn’t enjoy reading and doesn’t know L. Frank Baum from Franklin Roosevelt. Is this actionable information?

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