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The Porcupine: A Case for Teacher-Led Assessment

Posted on May 17, 2016

A guy goes into the emergency room complaining of chest pain.

Luckily, he’s walked into the most state-of-the-art hospital in town. They hook him up to a wireless heart monitor, take his vitals remotely, even run a complete blood panel using only an infrared camera.

They analyze all of the data and can’t find anything wrong, yet still the man continues to wail and clutch his chest, crying in agony.

An expert physician is called in to consult. He takes one look at the patient and immediately lunges forward to remove the large porcupine from inside the man’s shirt.

The expert stares around the room at all of the other nurses and doctors, holding the hissing porcupine at arm’s length. “What on EARTH were you all thinking?” he cries.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” says one of the younger docs. “I’m no veterinarian.”

When I do workshops with kids about standardized testing, I always start by asking them if they’ve ever taken a standardized test before. Many of them, especially the ones who are only 8 years old, say emphatically, “no.” At this point, I tell them all that I bet they have, and proceed to have them all take their pulse using two fingers on their wrist or neck, and record their rate. The numbers are, of course, all over the place, depending upon each kid’s math phobia, counting ability, skin thickness, and general wiggliness. In the end, we see that our numbers are all different, yet we are all still alive and kicking. The point I want the kids to take away is that the purpose for a standardized test is to record data about a particular activity, and then to compare it to other data on similar activity to identify patterns and spot irregularities. Like the joke I just told, all the tests in the world are useless unless some common sense is applied to the data.

What do tests tell us about learning? Well, it certainly depends on the test. A typical norm-referenced, standardized test consists of test questions, also called items. Each item tests a particular skill or standard. The standards, in turn, correspond to the curricular goals for each grade. Ergo, the test should accurately measure what a student has learned. Right?

Wrong. I’ll give you an example.

Here is a typical Grade 3 writing standard:

     Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Mrs. Jones has been teaching third grade for 20 years. She knows exactly how to approach this standard in a way that is appropriate for the 7-to-9-year-old children in her class: they’ll each write an informational essay of three to five paragraphs about an animal of their choosing, and together, create an Animal Encyclopedia. She spends a solid month teaching her students how to write an informative essay: how to write strong topic sentences and cohesive paragraphs, how to provide supporting details, and avoid opinion in favor of supported facts. They read examples of good informational texts and brainstorm interesting topics. They read books and do internet research about their animal. They pair-share and make fact cards. They write several rough drafts. They perform peer-review circles and conference with Mrs. Jones before moving on to their final drafts. They prepare final drafts in pen, using their best handwriting. Mrs. Jones had hoped to get time for her students to use the computer lab to type their essays, but the room was being used all week by another class. Some of the students include drawings, and others pictures they have clipped from magazines or printed out from the internet at home. Together, they assemble their Animal Encyclopedia into a large book for the students and their parents to enjoy. The students are proud of their work and Mrs. Jones is really pleased with the results of this classroom-based assessment. After all, most of these kids are just 8 years old.

Then it’s time for standardized testing. It’s the new and supposedly superior national test developed by experts, so Mrs. Jones is hopeful. She marches her class to the computer lab and after several minutes spend adjusting chairs, screens, cables, and headphones, they are ready. Sure enough, there is a Writing prompt for the kids that is aligned to the very standard Mrs. Jones has spent all that time teaching. Here is a link to a typical standardized Writing Prompt.

Immediately, panic breaks out in the classroom. Even though the task is similar to the process Mrs. Jones has followed in her lessons, the experience is very different for the students. First of all, even though the prompt gives the illusion of an interesting writing task (a “classroom magazine”) and choice of topic (“everyone has been assigned a different job”) the students really have no choice in the topic. They MUST write on the assigned topic (astronauts, in the example) and they must read the provided articles only. So immediately, we have taken out the personal interest factor. Whereas in Mrs. Jones’ lesson, students were able to conference with their peers and teacher about the tasks, in the case of the standardized test, they may not consult anyone else. Finally, rather than using their most trusted tool available, their own hands, they must read information off of a screen and type their answers into a box on a screen. Many of Mrs. Jones’ students come from families who do not own computers so they have never used a keyboard before, and do not regularly read off of a screen. It takes most of the students several attempts to figure out the available tools and there are numerous technical glitches along the way. Several students lose their drafts when the internet connection drops or they push a wrong button. After two hours, a handful of students have completed the task, but the majority of the students will need to return the next day.

All in all, to get all of the students through the task, Mrs. Jones returns to the computer lab six times over the next week and a half. By the end of the experience, she and her students are disheartened and exhausted. When the scores come back, they are inscrutable and provide little in the way of useful feedback for Mrs. Jones, the students, or their parents.

This is just one example of many that demonstrate that for every standard that seems perfectly reasonable in the hands of a skilled teacher, there are a dozen standardized assessments that make that same skill completely unattainable for the average child. This protracted focus on poorly-developed, developmentally-inappropriate assessments has resulted in a national furor over the educational readiness of our children, an ill-founded admonition of the efficacy of our teachers, and a grinding away at the very foundation of the idea of free public education. Our “tests” may be getting more sophisticated and technologically impressive, but what they are gaining in flash, they are losing in common sense.

For God’s sake, people. Just pull off the damn porcupine. Give the teachers the standards and let them teach and assess their students as they have been trained to do.

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