School & District Management Opinion

Unequal Comparisons in Education Grind My Gears

By Starr Sackstein — August 28, 2018 3 min read
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Often in education, comparisons are made that simply don’t add up. Recently, at a training I attended, I realized there is one, in particular, that was starting to make my blood boil...

Taking a standardized or state test is not equivalent or analogous to a doctor performing a medical procedure. On several occasions during our training, our trainer made the comment that he wouldn’t want a doctor to have a bad day when he was in need of medical help and this was supposed to signify why taking standardized exams were essential.

Other metaphors being used throughout the day had to do with standardized plumbing and personal training also meant to illustrate how some tasks called for creativity while others should just be done a certain way.

There are many reasons why these metaphors, analogies, and comparisons don’t work.

  1. Students are children who haven’t been trained in a particular field for years at a time and yes, they should be able to show what they know whenever they are asked to do so, that just doesn’t always go the way they need it to go.
  2. No one small window of time can adequately show what any kids know and can do as tests, in general, do not speak to different modalities of learning. This is detrimental to many divergent thinkers who may solve and tackle problems in different ways.
  3. There is an inherent inequity in what the test informs as instruction isn’t standardized either, nor should it be. And not every teacher and/or school has access to the same resources to prepare students for these exams the same way.
  4. As a collective whole, educators have a hard time agreeing on what skills and content should be considered standard and therefore setting up a test that doesn’t account for multiple perspectives can easily be skewed and can also put some students at a disadvantage if they aren’t learning the exact information that is required. Also, if we only value what is on the test, we rob students of learning a plethora of fascinating content and important skills that are simply too hard to test in any objective way.
  5. Students aren’t standard, so why should they be assessed in a manner that doesn’t address what makes them unique and why can’t we agree other systems like portfolios may work better to show a wider variety of learning and not just the learning that someone else deems as important.
  6. Even if we could agree on a skill set and content worth testing, creating a test that is both efficient and fair would be challenging. Timed components aren’t realistic and multiple choice questions take away the opportunity for students to show their thinking which may not be faulty even if they arrive at the wrong answer.
  7. The data from these tests often arrives too late to impact what happens in the classroom and sadly, many folks don’t know how to use the data appropriately to improve learning.

While agree that there are things in this world that should be done one and only one way, I do not agree that education should be on that list. There are just too many variables that make learning to complex to standardize. Whether it be the delivery method of the content based on the teacher who stands among the students, or the resources provided to the school for that teacher and those students, or the vastly different students who sit in the class, or the number of vastly different students sitting in a class or the socio-economic status of a district, what we value as educators skews what we give time to in a school.

We have to do a better job as a profession to assess students in meaningful ways and then find ways to share that data. The standards surely help us know the skills we are trying to teach, but we are also trying to raise young men and woment to become functioning members of society, good people who will have to perform in a variety of different ways to be successful depending on their given career paths.

Why don’t we agree that students shouldn’t be tested in this way because it is easier? Shouldn’t we find a more effective and equitable way of determining student learning and school success rates? Isn’t it time for us to acknowledge that we hurt kids by testing them too much and that testing is actually robbing students of effective and meaninful opportunities for engaging learning?

What would a better assessment metaphor be? How could we start rethinking the way we gather information about student learning on a bigger scale? Please share

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