A “balanced” standardized testing approach is a good thing

Update 5pm Friday, October 21, 2011: I just got a Google Alert to this Christian Science Monitor breaking news item that the United States Senate voted this afternoon to drop the provision in the No Child Left Behind law that required annual standardized testing improvements.  That is a huge victory for all those who have seen the damage that the provision did to everyone involved in public education — state officials, school administrators, teachers and students. So, just as I agreed with Michael Zwaagstra’s views below, there will now be a chance for the U.S. to have a balanced approach between standardized testing in reading and math and the rest of the curriculum. My guess is the cheating will now stop as well!

Here also is the same announcement via the New York Times.

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According to Michael Zwaagstra at Troy Media,   a balanced approach to standardized testing is a good thing.  Zwaagstra, a research fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Manitoba high school teacher and the author of “What’s wrong with our schools and how we can fix them,” seems very balanced in his analysis as well. As such, as a former teacher myself (and retired teacher educator), for the most part I agree with what he has written.

However, the key word is “balanced.” From what I am reading is happening in the United States, what Obama’s Department of Education is insisting on is anything but balanced. Rather, they are stressing the importance of annual test results to such an extent that some states are asking for exemptions, while others are busy firing teachers. In fact, with the number of teachers being fired and others quitting, the U.S. is going to have a major teacher shortage in the not too distant future.  

No doubt, that is what concerns Canada’s teachers’ unions and teachers themselves. Could that type of extremism, in a drip by drip approach, become the norm in Canada as well? I would say not as long as Canadian parents and lawmakers are kept aware of what balanced means.

The bottom line is that some form of standardized testing is absolutely essential for accountability and to provide benchmarks on academic achievement, particularly in reading and math. However, that said, while those objective measures of performance are important, so are all the other things that go on in our schools — our music, our visual art, our athletics, our class trips, our debates, our spelling bees and our speech contests.

In other words, acknowledging all those aspects of learning and schooling is what a well-rounded education looks like — in preparation for a job and real life. Because, remember, jobs in real life are not just about the specific skills and knowledge required, be they engineering, law, carpentry or plumbing. Certainly, those components are crucial. But, and this is the big but, there is also the equally important ability to get along with other people, be they co-workers or customers, as well as to be able to problem-solve and think creatively. You don’t get those skills through teaching to the test.

So, yes, the crux of the matter is that a “balanced” standardized testing approach can be a good thing.

7 thoughts on “A “balanced” standardized testing approach is a good thing

  1. “Standardized testing does not tell us anything that we didn’t already know.” Vito Perrone retired Dean of the Graduate School of Education -Harvard.

    Finland, world’s #1 school system proves that standardized testing has nothing to do with accountability nor improvements in achievement.

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    • No doubt you have read this source but in case you haven’t, it’s about Finland. It would be interesting to go there and check things out and then come back and report on it. Are they a multi-cultural or multi-lingual society for starters? Or, are they homogeneous? What about poverty and the “inner city” versus rural situation. They all impacts on results.

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  2. Unlike the US where standardized testing is usually used as a requirement to advance to the next grade, standardized tests in Ontario are the least important tests students will take during the educational lives, except for the Grade 10 Literacy test.

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    • Well Matt — We are talking two separate issues .While the majority of EQAO tests may be the least important in a student’s life, they are very important for us as a society to make sure our kids are learning the skills they need in life. Let me tell you, as a former university professor, I sometimes wondered what my fellow secondary English teachers were doing because I had to spend several classes just teaching them how to research, plan and write an essay. And, those were second year students!!! The buck has to stop somewhere.

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  3. Students are also smart enough (especially in Grade 6 and 9) to realize that the test has little impact on them and many approach the test this way. I also think that too much time and money is being spent on programs directly related to EQAO improvement rather than put into other remediation and support programs.

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  4. There is a looong history of the introduction of new standardized testing regimes (ST). First there are the initial tests. Everybody takes a look, hmm not where we would like to be. All of the results break down 100% by SES but nobody it seems, wishes to discuss the 400lb gorilla in the room.

    The next few years are crammed with ‘test prep’ as each school acts out a paranoid fear of the other schools and preps like crazy on material that apes the test. Lo and behold, the results go up a little and everyone pats their own back. Then about 3 years in a ‘plateau’ is hit because all of the low hanging fruit has been picked, the test prep has blown some hot air on the thermometer but higher results become very difficult.

    At this point some schools and boards have figured out some tricks. Don’t watch the clock too closely, Find the kids that “just missed” in the practice test and drill them, never mind the ones way ahead or so far behind that they can’t make it. Start stealing some time from art, social studies, science, music, phys ed because they are not being tested after all.

    Back at the EQAO a decision is made to make the tests ever so slightly easier mainly through training the markers to be a little more generous, calculators are allowed, time is liberalized, ESL gets more time SE gets more time.

    Due to all of the above the results nudge up slightly again just in time for an election. Then the results plateau again. Slowly it doesn’t matter. The Real Estate agents now know, (as if they didn’t before) which schools are the ‘good schools’ and which are ‘not so much’ property values have shifted, conclusions have been drawn, attention moves elsewhere.

    Ever notice when the EQAO results come out now nobody cares any more?

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