The Conversation: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

The Conversation US: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different

[Some edits and expanded below]

About 15 years ago, education writer Alfie Kohn made an impassioned case against standardized testing. But despite the wealth of evidence supporting his argument, standardized testing has dramatically increased in the last few years.

From being linked only to high school exit exams and school report cards in the 1980s and 1990s, standardized tests are now part of national standards as well as test-based teacher evaluations.

The latest to be added to the list has been developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) that claims to assess whether students are ready or not for college and careers.

As a 30-plus years educator who has examined how high-stakes testing in the US perpetuates privilege, I do not see how this round of testing will be any different.

I believe PARCC, a move toward national standardized tests of college and career readiness, is another attempt to chase “better tests.” It does not offer anything more to prove that these standardized tests rise above the flaws in testing we have witnessed for decades.

The appeal being made in the case of PARCC is that these tests evaluate the college and career readiness of students. If we recall, similar grand claims were made as part of testing being central to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

PARCC items found to be grade inappropriate

NCLB was driven, at least in part, by promises of closing the achievement gap and bringing greater equity to public education. But that promise has not been fulfilled, a fact likely linked to the flaws of standardized tests.

Common Core standards and PARCC tests fit into the same pattern of chasing “better tests” to achieve idealistic goals, the only difference being these tests are national instead of being state-based.

From what we know about PARCC so far, the difficulty with tests is that many of the questions are developmentally inappropriate. For instance, during the implementation of English Language Arts elementary tests in New York, questions were not properly matched to the age group.

Principal of South Side High School in New York State Carol Burris, who was named an outstanding educator, explains:

[A] passage on the third-grade test from ‘Drag Racer’…has a grade level of 5.9 and an interest level of ninth – 12th grade.

Bitter lessons of chasing better tests

As we know, across the US, high-stakes standardized testing has had many detrimental consequences: students have been denied graduation, children have been retained in third grade teachers have been dismissed and convicted of cheating.

Despite the grand claims about the tests, there is a growing opt-out movement. In addition, there have been technology failures during testing, controversies over the assessment services company Pearson “spying” on students and concerns about student data security.

However, in the wake of the cheating scandal and conviction of teachers in Atlanta, Angelika Pohl, founder and president of the Atlanta-based Better Testing & Evaluations, remains convinced that the problem is not with the tests themselves but with the inability to create “better tests”:

Tests are not inherently bad. It is quite possible to write test questions and answer choices that most people would agree are fair measures of what a student has learned. It is possible to write questions that do not have any of the flaws mentioned nor other flaws. But it costs money. And expertise.

Tests don’t lead to better performance

Instead of chasing “better tests,” we must admit standardized tests are flawed mechanisms for creating equity.

Evidence suggests that neither Common Core nor the related high-stakes “next generation” tests (such as those developed by PARCC) will achieve that ever-elusive goal of “better tests.”

A 2011 comprehensive review of the accountability movement built on standards and high-stakes testing has shown the degree to which testing has negatively affected student graduation rates, an important indicator of equity.

In addition, testing has often had a greater and negative impact on learning than curriculum or standards. Managing director of the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis has shown that high-stakes testing “resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum.”

Nothing about these “next generation” of tests suggests they will be any more effective than state-based accountability systems introduced almost 30 years ago, since the format and grading of these tests remain essentially the same.

In fact, continuing to depend on standardized testing will neither increase student achievement nor achieve equity goals.

Many factors go into test scores

That tests do not create equity, but do reflect inequity, is also clear from the example of college entrance exams such as the SAT.

Results of standardized tests directly reflect students’ socio-economic status and their parents’ level of education. As data from the SAT show, student scores increase directly in line with parental wealth and education, thus misrepresenting college-preparedness, which is better represented by simple GPA:

SAT 2012 demographics copy

Standardized tests reflect more out-of-school than in-school influences:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Standardized test scores are also biased by gender and race, with whites and males scoring higher. However, test data are misinterpreted as exclusively student achievement.

In short, from the SAT and ACT to PARCC, I would argue, high-stakes tests perpetuate and even create inequity.

Education historian Herb Kliebard explains that US formal education embraced standardized testing in the early 20th century mostly because those tests were inexpensive and easy to implement.

In the process, a system has been set up that tolerates the many and more corrosive consequences of those tests.

We currently have no evidence, however, that PARCC has solved these historical and lingering problems with the inherently flawed and limited system of standardized testing.

Using standardized tests such as PARCC for high-stakes decisions about individual students or teachers will only continue to fail students but not to achieve goals of social and educational equity.

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