The limits of standardized tests

Why am I not surprised by the front page headline, “Less than half of Maryland students pass English, math assessments, Aug. 22”? As a retired teacher I had many opportunities to administer and observe the state tests that students were given. When I started questioning the readability level of MSPAP I decided to do a readability study of the passages on the test. I found the average passage for the third grade test to be at a 5th grade reading level and an average passage for the 5th grade test to be at a 7.5 grade reading level.

While state school board president Andrew Smarick is quoted as indicating the PARCC test is “difficult” and rationalizing that is to “make sure students are on track to go to college when they graduate from high school,” I would like to remind Mr. Smarick that not all high school graduates need to or will go to college. However, to be employed as a sanitation worker one must have a high school diploma. Since the PARCC tests, like the High School Assessments, are to be passed in order to get that diploma, we need to question their readability (at the student’s actual grade level) and cultural content.

As an inclusion teacher for algebra I had to teach students the “lingo” necessary for them to comprehend the vocabulary and the style of writing posed in the scenarios and style of questions in the Algebra HSA. I have seen similar questions in Facebook posts that require you to determine a pattern or sequence of math operations. In the HSA these would have been a part of a written problem as well. A student may know the math but have difficulty comprehending and responding to what is presented if that student has difficulty with the manner in which the problem uses higher level vocabulary.

School board member David Steiner is quoted as recognizing that “more privileged students tend to do better at a more accelerated rate.” Wow, how long have we known that? Students who are exposed to reading at an early age, provided with a variety of experiences, encouraged to show their creativity and have parents who are at a higher education level, already have an edge over their peers when they enter school. This does not mean they should be “taught down to.” Instead they need to be met where they are with a multi-media, multi-faceted approach to learning. I've never forgotten an article I read years ago that stated in Denmark it was “illegal” to teach a child to read before the age of seven. The operant word being “teach.” Learning to read comes from being read to, being curious about what a street sign says, wanting to identify the word that goes with a picture, singing relevant songs and listening to relevant poems and rhymes.

When my younger son was in first grade his teacher worried (at a parent conference that fall) that he was dragging out the sounds of the words. In February, he won a contest for reading the most books. He was a scholar athlete in high school and went on to graduate with honors from the University of Maryland. As an adult, he continues to be a reader.

For some time now I have been concerned about the test mania that seems prevalent in our society. Results of tests too often categorize us in ways that can be demeaning and unproductive. For a young child this can have lifelong effects, stigmatize the child’s ability to learn, and have an adverse effect on teachers responsible for insuring the child, who may not yet be ready to learn to read or to do analytical math problems, meets standards that are presented at grade levels beyond the child's actual grade. We need to be careful to not sabotage good teaching and productive learning with tests that are set up for a specific set of students and are not looking at the needs and learning styles of all students.

Rebecca Kelman

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