Readers Write: Tests are a vital tool for teaching

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The recent editorial in the June 14 issue of this paper entitled “Opt-out backers support achievement” was written by the founders of PW Advocates for Public Education.

The writers discuss the work of educational researchers who support adequate recess and the benefits of play-based learning. They also seek to address what they perceive to be misrepresentations of the opt-out movement; contrary to claims in other editorials, they state that their movement supports student achievement and that “testing done right is valuable and not harmful.”

However, the writers do not explain why testing is valuable and how it should be done. Here I explain how standardized tests can be used to increase student learning, how the opt-out movement is making that goal harder to achieve, and the key role teachers have in moving us forward.

The main benefit of standardized tests (particularly those that are exclusively multiple choice) is that the grading is totally objective and repeatable. Without such tests, any serious researcher in education would be left trying to determine if an “A” for one assignment in one school is equivalent to an “A” on a different assignment in a different school.

Even outcomes of standardized tests can be difficult to interpret because of the many variables outside of the classroom that affect student achievement (such as family income, education of the parents).

Thus a low performing class may be more reflective of students’ home environments then the quality of education they are getting in the classroom. These complications make it difficult to tease out the sources of student success, and whether programs in one place can be expanded to different populations of students. Supporters of the opt-out movement in New York often look to Finland for inspiration, but it is not clear whether the great educational outcomes in Finland are a result of the absence of standardized tests, more recess, the greater competition for teaching spots, or any of the myriad ways Finland and New York differ.

Although standardized tests typically originate at the state and federal level, it is easiest to interpret differences at the local level because the student populations and educations they receive will be fairly similar.

If, for example, we consistently saw greater student growth in standardized test scores in Sousa than in Guggenheim, then we would be well advised to see how the curriculum and/or teaching differs between these two schools.

Of course for tests to be useful, they have to be reliable and measure the right things. I agree with many in the opt-out movement in seeing the current state tests, which only cover math and English language arts, as being too narrow. However, unlike them, I would advocate more testing, not less, to determine student learning in other subjects, particularly science.

Another criticism of the state tests is that they are invalid because the bar for meeting proficiency is too high. This may be true (see below), but the opt-out movement actually undermines test validity in another, less appreciated, way.

Each school and school district receives a state report card, which is largely based on student performance on standardized tests. If we look at the 2018 scores for grades 3-8 on the state’s math exam for the Port Washington School District, we can see that 68 percent of students were scored as being proficient.

However, the report card is almost certainly misleading; with the true % being different as a consequence of the non-random subset of students whose parents chose to opt them out of these exams.

In my opinion, the tests should be improved and expanded, and in the meantime, students should be encouraged to take state tests so that we can ensure students are reaching key learning objectives in math and English language arts.

The obvious group with the expertise to make the tests better are our public school teachers, and the “Correct the Tests” website (https://correctthetests.com) of the New York State United Teachers seems to suggest they are eager for this role. However, a more careful reading of that website makes me less certain.

Their website includes some recommendations, but not enough detail is provided to guide New York State on how to implement them.

For example, NYSUT states that the exams are too long, but they do not specify what an appropriate length would be. They indicate that the test is invalid because of a large mismatch between student success on the Algebra I Regents and the state math exam from the prior year, but maybe Algebra I Regents is too easy, instead of the state math exam being too hard.

Although they acknowledge that public school teachers have been involved in revising state learning standards (i.e. revision of Common Core) and that teachers are involved in the writing and editing questions, they say more is needed.

Specifically, they want committees of teachers to write, vet, and check questions. This all sounds good, but if so many are needed to create state exams, how can we be confident that the exams that individual teachers create in the classroom on a day-to-day basis are reliable and valid? Just to be clear, I think they are, and the “Correct the Test” website makes me suspect that NYSUT is not willing to take ownership of correcting the tests, lest they be seen as responsible for further unintended consequences or future negative fallout.

Given the above, we should prepare for several more years of fairly narrow, state-mandated exams, limited public school teacher efforts to improve them, and a constant struggle among parents, voters, and the New York Department of Education on student participation for these tests.

This is really unfortunate because the development of excellent standardized tests that are implemented well and interpreted right can be a major tool for advancing student learning. With advance planning and careful analysis, we could use these tests to evaluate the success of new curricula and programs in our district.

For example, if we had standardized tests for science, we could see if the newly constructed STEAM labs actually increase student learning in these areas. Without such tools, it will be really hard to say if play-based learning and more recess improve our student’s education.

In this data vacuum, we will have little choice but to appeal to experts at Harvard or elsewhere, instead of learning from our own kids what works best for them.

Jonathan Geisler

Port Washington

2 COMMENTS

  1. “However, unlike them, I would advocate more testing.” Mr. Geisler, that, sir, is most likely why the education advocate, Deborah Brooks, received 3x as many votes as you. You truly need to do even just a minor amount of research on standardized testing and how “valuable” they truly are (spoiler alert: not very). This would be why each year dozens of universities are dropping the SAT as an entrance exam, or why elite private schools do NOT participate in these statewide standardized assessments. Research is growing, and unfortunately (fortunately) your ideas about increased standardized testing are being increasingly left behind for good reason. But don’t fret, NY still has plenty of inappropriate useless ELA, math, regents, computerized, benchmark, SAT, PSAT, ACT, NAEP, AP, and field tests that you can volunteer your 8 year old daughter to take. Otherwise, how would you have ANY idea if she was being educated at all?

    • Dear Ms. Deutermann. There are several responses I have to your comment, but I only want to make one to emphasize its importance. I do not know if you have children, so this may not make much sense, but I had a very strong, instinctive reaction to your mention of my daughter. You can say whatever you like about me, my ideas, or arguments, but please do not mention my daughter. I want to keep her out of these discussions. Thank you.

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