Published Online: April 2, 1997

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How Proficiency Tests Fall Short (Let Me Count the Ways)

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Proficiency tests, this decade's panacea for all of education's ills, are the latest vehicle for removing from teachers their right to be professional.

Fourth grade with Mrs. Voyer: I was one of her 48 students in a combined 4th/5th grade class. An ambidextrous teacher, Mrs. Voyer taught one grade aloud while the rest of us were working on seatwork that kept both our minds and fingers occupied.

One day, during indoor recess, Mrs. Voyer called me to her desk. Without fanfare or accolades, she told me something in a voice as soft as a pillow.

"James," she said, "I'm changing your seat to the middle row. That way, you'll be able to hear the lessons that I'm teaching the 5th graders. I think you'll understand everything just fine."

That was it. No meeting with parents, no forms to sign, no rationales to document. Mrs. Voyer just did what made sense to her as a professional. In doing so, she gave me the confidence to pursue an education that was beyond my years.

At the awarding of my Ph.D. at age 28, I said a silent thank you to Mrs. Voyer, for she was the first teacher who told me that I was more capable than I thought I was. She gave me confidence, but, even more, she inspired me to see learning as an adventure without boundaries. Also, she showed me that teachers are imbued with a keen ability to know what is best for the children in their care, a trait I have tried to emulate since I entered the education profession 20 years ago.

And now, just as I enter the prime of my teaching career, I am hit face-front with a state-sanctioned rebuke of my ability to teach: a proficiency test that will measure my worth as a teacher, and my students' success as learners.

If my home state of Ohio were alone in mandating these tests, I could pass the whole thing off as an over-zealous attempt by an "education governor'' to score political points with bureaucrats and business leaders who believe that our schools are academic wastelands. But since more than half of our states require some type of test-based evidence that students are learning, it's obvious that a trend is under way. Proficiency tests, this decade's panacea for all of education's ills, are the latest vehicle for removing from teachers their right to be professional. These paper-and-pencil tests, given at intervals of one to three years, have limited the authority of teachers to do what Mrs. Voyer knew well how to do: determine whether or not I was learning the "stuff" that 4th grade was supposed to teach me. This one-time test score has replaced a full year of teacher observations about students. Numbers have replaced knowledge; statistics have supplanted the professional opinion of teachers who know kids better than any test can ever show. It's all so sad--and so unnecessary.

By being asked to show only a little, gifted students have been quietly rebuffed for knowing a lot.

Especially hard hit are gifted children and academic achievers. Since proficiency tests, by design, are meant to determine who has mastered the lowest acceptable levels of competency, the tests themselves do little more than document what we already know: that highly able students do just fine in basic skill acquisition. And, if the proficiency tests were nothing more than a one-day annoyance for teachers and students to endure, then I could chalk up this exercise as merely one more hoop to jump through to prove that I am, as a teacher, doing my job.

But the test itself is just a formality, an endpoint to months of preparation for the test. It is the hours spent practicing types of questions that might appear on the tests and the days denying students enrichment options that are truly meaningful that make proficiency tests so harmful and invasive. For our brightest students, this quest for proving excellence has taken a dramatic turn toward mediocrity. By being asked to show only a little, gifted students have been quietly rebuffed for knowing a lot.

Another distinct and troubling aspect of these acronym-laden proficiency tests (in Texas, they're called the TAAS; in South Carolina, the BSAP, and so on) is that there are few incentives for districts that prove they already do a good job of teaching their students. For example, the district in which I have taught for the past five years has more than 85 percent of 4th, 6th, and 9th grade students proving themselves competent by Ohio standards. Not bad. Still, every year students must take several days to prove once again they are competent. How much more sense it would make for our district to be given a waiver from these tests for three years. Then, based on our solid past performance, we could continue to provide sound educational experiences to all of our students. Who knows? With the added days of teaching time this waiver would allow, we might even have a chance to explore more educational options that would increase our passing percentage to an even higher level. Everyone would benefit: the students who already did well on the tests; students who needed extra attention to their learning needs; and the teachers who would be allowed to teach to the students, not to a test, which is the job they were hired to do.

Yet another disturbing aspect of most proficiency tests is the absolute secrecy surrounding them. Picture this: I am a 6th grade teacher who has learned that 30 percent of my class is not proficient (according to test scores) in reading and writing. "Fine," I say to myself, "when I get their tests back, I'll examine what they don't know, and I'll focus some additional time in those areas."

A proficiency ranking tells me nothing about how high a child can soar, merely whether he or she can get off the ground.

Sorry—not allowed. The tests themselves are not returned, just the scores and a general summary of deficiencies--for example, "low scores in reading comprehension," or "weak expository writing sample." Such general comments can't help me plan compensatory lessons for individual students. It's like riding in a foggy sea in a rudderless boat: If I end up in the right place, it'll be only by instinct or accident.

Lastly, and especially important for gifted and creative students, is the fact that some of our most able children are penalized for thinking too hard or too imaginatively. There are countless cases of magnificent student writers whose work was labeled as "not proficient" because it did not follow the step-by-step sequence of what the test scorers (many of whom are not educators, by the way) think good expository writing should look like. And, with many of the multiple-choice questions having several "correct" options in the eyes of creative thinkers, scores get depressed for children who see possibilities that are only visible to those with open minds.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh and accusatory about the purposes behind proficiency tests. After all, what's the harm in getting a rough gauge of the level of academic competency among a school district's students? The harm, as I see it, is this: We get a false sense of security that the greatest good is being served by universal testing. But a generic score tells me nothing about the merits of one teacher's instruction, or a teacher's goals for an individual student. A proficiency ranking tells me nothing about how high a child can soar, merely whether he or she can get off the ground.

A proficiency score satisfies only those who look for simple solutions to complex issues. Unless and until state departments of education, politicians, superintendents, and others "in charge" take the responsibility to say "enough is enough," our schools will be mandated to accept adequacy over excellence, and our nation's most able children will be prevented from reaching new horizons in learning; horizons that Mrs. Voyer saw in me, and that today's teachers can see in our students, if only we give them the freedom to do so.


James R. Delisle is a professor of education at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and the author of seven books, including (with Deb Delisle) Growing Good Kids (Free Spirit Publishing, 1996). He is currently on sabbatical leave, teaching 4th and 5th grade students in a rural Southern school.

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