Hey there, all you parents, politicians, and real estate speculators: good news! Test scores are out, and overall the kids did better this year, especially in math. Isn’t that great? I assure you, your house just added a good $10k to its value.
Some restrictions apply due to race, income, and location, of course, but let’s not dwell on that. Cheers!
The latest standardized test we’re forcing Connecticut’s children to slog through, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test, showed that the state’s third- through eighth-graders have made progress on both English language and math.
I was curious about the SBAC test, so I decided to take it. Rather, I took the practice tests for math and English/language arts provided by the state of Connecticut. As was usual for me, I found the English section boring and the math section bewildering.
The sample English test asked me to read a dull few paragraphs about a girl deciding she likes living away from civilization and to ferret out the main ideas, write a conclusion for a history essay on the Magna Carta, and listen to a short segment on Monticello and answer questions. The math part threw a bunch of fractions and graphs at me, so I wrote swear words in the answer areas to hide my total incompetence and called it a day.
The only real difference between this and any other standardized test is that a correct answer on one question will prompt the test to give students harder questions, and incorrect answers will lead to easier ones. That’s it. Otherwise, it looks and feels like assessments being given decades ago.
These tests in their full version take students several days to complete. Then a computer scores everything — including written responses. If that sounds like a terrible idea, don’t worry. It is.
Automated test scoring has all of the problems that any kind of automated process designed to mimic and/or predict complex human judgment has. Since the computer can’t “read,” it looks for vocabulary and groups of words. That’s how someone was able to fool the GRE’s automated scoring with a gibberish essay.
A FAQ from the state tries to address reasonable questions from teachers like, “this bad essay got a good grade, what the heck?” with the rather snippy “When evaluating the response, consider if another teacher might give a slightly higher or lower score.” In other words, what if you’re just wrong, Teach?
We already know about the classroom time lost to test prep; teachers have been warning us about that for decades. We also know that Common Core, the national standards that the SBAC test is supposed to assess, is still not without controversy.
We also know that the same racial and economic achievement gaps that have always plagued schools in this country persist. The difference between Hartford and Avon remains stark, and as long as test scores are “sold” by administrators and politicians as evidence of school quality, parents are going to try to move to high-scoring towns. Property prices will be driven up, meaning poorer students will be shut out, thereby ensuring test scores remain high. It’s a vicious cycle.
What we don’t know is whether Common Core and the SBAC test are actually preparing American students better. What research there is, suggests that there’s some correlation between higher SBAC test scores and first-year college success, but the SAT remains a slightly better predictor. Other than that, we don’t have enough data, because the first cohort that followed Common Core for their entire school careers is still in high school.
Therefore, despite all of the focus on corporate-style, data-driven decision making in education, we have no idea if our schools are improving.
In Finland, one of the world’s best school systems, teachers are highly-paid professionals who focus on educating the whole child. Education policy and curricula are driven by schools, and save for a final exam given to high school seniors, there are no standardized tests.
We could learn something from that, but I doubt we ever will.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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