Putting Standardized Testing in Perspective

Bummed about bubble sheets? Don't blame you...

Bummed about bubble sheets? Don’t blame you…

Well, the remaining 40 percent of the districts are reporting in.  But it’s too early to call it.

Even in this tumultuous election year, I actually wish this post were about the drama leading up to November 4th.  But instead, this post is about standardized testing.  Our school district is one of the 40 percent whose scores from spring testing are not released until the following school year.  As expected, the scores were released recently, and they made headlines in the local newspaper (Butler, Ann.  “State tests:  Math results alarming, 9-R superintendent says”  Durango Herald, Friday, September 2, 2016) .  And even though math performance on PARCC** royally stunk we parents have been reassured, in the recent article, that a “teacher on special assignment” will be looking into “math at all grade levels.”  And that, since the results are fresh, it’s too early to determine their real meaning.  But even better, the news article states, the district’s schools “shine” in language arts.  On quick glance, however, those scores range from “meh” down to less than 50 percent proficiency.  That is the definition of “shine,” according to our district superintendent.  “Lacking” is how he describes the math scores.

I still prefer “royally stunk.”

My first reaction was to point a finger at how math and language arts are taught in our community.  Of course, that’s how the testing gods want us to think.  And what educators and their superiors think we parents think.  But let’s think (sadly, I have been putting lots of thinking into this topic) about standardized test results more carefully and put percentages that fall short of (or beat) a state’s average performance into a different perspective.

I wrote about standardized testing last spring, on the cusp of my own kids’ taking the equivalent of days worth of exams.  Something we need to realize from these tests and their scores is that they could, possibly, be bogus.  Yes, some kids don’t test well.  Yes, some questions on these exams approach topics in ways to which kids haven’t been exposed (“test” questions, if you will).  As a local curriculum director rationalized, these are possible explanations for our poor PARCC scores.  However, it’s no secret that poorly written standardized exams do exist.  They may not actually test what they are supposed to test.  In other words, the scores from standardized tests could, could, be meaningless as far as assessing how well our schools teach math and language arts.  It seems a red flag, too, if across all grade levels in a district the scores are consistently low (like ours) or consistently good.  And the solution to this potential issue?  Easier said than done:  an objective, outside look (by a source not tied to the standardized test industry or school district) at these exams must occur and changes made as needed to make sure our kids are being assessed fairly.  Let’s not condemn our teachers if standardized test scores are poor.  Their hands are tied if the tests are not evaluating kids’ knowledge of the Common Core.

And what about the year-to-year comparison of standardized test scores?  It’s not uncommon to hear “Our fourth graders did better/worse this year than last year.”  It sounds like a pretty straightforward statement but should be taken with careful consideration.  The fourth grade class is a different set of kids from the year prior, with a new mix of abilities unique to that group.  The instruction could also be different (new teacher, new materials, etc.).  Even the time slot for administering a given standardized test can impact scores.  For example, a fourth grade math test could be given first thing in the morning one year, when the kids are “fresh” and the next year be given right before lunch when tummies are growling.  As an example, my daughter’s third grade class, rookies to standardized testing, were initiated into PARCC  the morning after spring break ended.  The kids are jet lagged or similar, have probably “lost” some of what they were learning in school more than a week before and overall going to struggle with getting back into the classroom groove.  Not a good time to assess kids’ math and language skills.  In short, we can’t look at standardized test scores in a vacuum; many additional factors play into that single percentage and how those numbers change within a grade level or within a class through the years.

For me the real shocker was something I hadn’t thought of until I read the recent article in the Durango Herald:  the school district’s reaction to scores.  Despite the disappointing standardized testing results, what I found more concerning was the position taken by the school superintendent.  He agreed with the local curriculum director that, as quoted by the latter:

And sometimes students don’t try to do their best because they don’t understand why it matters.

So the scores are the kids’ fault?  When I read this, my stomach dropped to my feet.  This rationale was similar to that taken by our son’s math teacher when we met about his academic struggles:

He’s inattentive and immature (and there will be help for him next year in sixth grade.)

Apparently it was his fault he wasn’t learning.  I found the position by the superintendent disturbing, especially as he must really believe it;  I found a newspaper article dated this past spring where he discussed his opinion…an opinion that brought parents into fault as well.  Which is interesting, because my kids’ darn well felt the pressures of excelling on PARCC; they came home weeks before the actual exam stressing out about taking it.  There was obviously a dialogue at school about the importance of standardized testing.  My husband and I had to talk our kids off the ledge and ask them to simply do their best.  But the superintendent nevertheless blames the students (and their parents) for their poor performance.  So here is my question:  is this pass-the-buck mentality one our district leaders are encouraging?  That said (asked), my kids have had amazing teachers who don’t subscribe to that train of thought; these teachers relish their responsibility and love to teach and see their students learn.  And these are teachers who will continue to do incredible work.  But a “super” who takes a position like it’s the students’ fault, giving permission for his faculty to do the same?

That’s bad.

Know your district’s take on standardized exams and the resulting scores.  It can be pretty insightful into the leadership’s take on learning, and education in general.

Here’s a thought:  standardized test scores are made public.  Can we do the same for stats on classroom performance?  Just because the PARCC scores are low doesn’t mean our kids aren’t doing well in the classroom.  Maybe it does, but standardized test scores don’t necessarily correlate with schoolwork.  I, for one, would like to see how these scores compare.

No, I don’t think standardized tests and their results are that useful.  I know many other parents who feel the same.  (Yes, Mr. Superintendent, families don’t get it.)   Getting last year’s scores now doesn’t help teachers teach those students as the latter have moved on.  But it’s a catch-22 as students can’t be assessed at a given grade level until they’ve completed the bulk of a given curriculum.  This system really does not work, if the whole standardized testing system is supposed to help kids get a better education.

Our teachers and our kids are getting a raw deal.  We’ve been promised by Washington, with the change in leadership at the Department of Education, that standardized testing will improve.  Here’s to hoping.


**The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career tests

Link to the recent article in the Durango Herald about standardized test results:


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