Monday, September 28, 2009
Another view: Test scores aren't best way to judge
Sacramento Bee | Page 3E
Our new U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, picked the right problem to address: Too many children are dropping out, tuning out or losing out in school. He gets points for choosing the right solution: "Great teachers, great principals matter," he says. "Talent matters tremendously in education." How will we know great teachers when we see them? "Good assessments matter," Duncan says. "Good data matters."
He loses points when he lists standardized tests as "good assessments." Multiple-choice tests by any measure are not good enough to do what he wants them to do. Worse, tests on steroids distort teaching, leading to low-level opportunities to learn to think, reason, communicate, imagine. Having worked with experienced teachers on school study projects as a professor at Sacramento State, I have examined evidence of long-term damage already done to our most vulnerable schools because of a razor-sharp focus on standardized tests.
Make test scores a part of teacher evaluation? Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, calls herself "a huge advocate for data" and says that it "changes the culture of a school." Indeed. But the world is filled with data. Being a data advocate is like being an advocate for breathing. Which data are good enough to be good evidence and do no harm?
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama understood: "We should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests," he said. "(We need to use) a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students' abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas."
What happened to candidate Obama's commitment to higher-order assessment? Whose idea is this litmus test, Obama's or Duncan's? Could Duncan, coming from Chicago, not find other assessments to identify and promote good teaching while minimizing the fallout of standardized tests? Or are test scores so central to Duncan's vision that they must remain a make-or-break proposition?
Strengthening the influence of bad assessment is not the way to improve teaching and learning. Incentivizing the development of good, sane, sensible, ethical, equitable, meaningful and productive assessments holds the promise of improvement.
Use test scores to evaluate teachers if you must, but write into the law clear language constraining the scope and nature of such uses. Do not assume test infallibility. Do not ignore test pollution. Do not avert your eyes from the damage super-heated tests cause.
Prof. Terry Underwood.