Thursday, October 25, 2012

Where Testing Went Wrong

         (Cross posted with my professional blog).

This week I had two encounters with students, honor students, that proved to me the degree of testing we do in schools has sent the educational system horribly astray. Both of these bright young people failed to perform simple, daily tasks because they simply had no idea how to do them. One task was making change; the other was addressing envelopes. Even well into the twenty-first century, we still use currency and mail.

         My school’s basketball team sold t-shirts as a fundraiser and I agreed to buy one from one of the students.

         “How much?” I asked.

         “Ten dollars,” she said.

         “I have a twenty. Do you have change?” I asked.

         “No,” she said dejectedly.

         “Come back later and I’ll see if I can break the $20.” I said.


         She came back to me later in the day for the money. I informed her that I had not found anyone who could break my $20. She was upset as the order was due in to the coach.

         I asked, “have you sold any other shirts?”

         “Yes!” she exclaimed.

         “Did they pay?” I asked.


         “Ok, then take my $20 and give me $10.”

         “I can’t do that!” she said looking disgusted.

         “Why not?”

         “Because they gave me that money for their shirts! I have to turn it in.”

         I then explained how making change works. I handed her my $20 and she gave me a $10.

         Later, after printing labels for some letters I needed mailed home to parents, I gave them to an office aide – another high performing student – to place on envelopes. A little later the student returned all the envelopes to me, with address labels attached – totally unusable. Most were in the far bottom corner, many folded over the edge of the envelope. Others were at wild angles going every which direction. None were usable by the postal service to deliver the letters home. I had to place blank labels over the incorrectly placed labels and then put new labels on the envelopes which took me twice as much time as if I had done the job myself.

         Two basic, functional, daily skills that high performing students did not know how to do. This is how testing has failed us. We churn out students who can do advanced math. Students who can recite Newton’s laws of physics. Students who write powerfully- formulaically. Yet they never learned to do basic, functional, daily skills.

         But on standardized testing they shine.

         I am not always popular in education circles for my strong belief in accountability. I absolutely believe teachers, counselors, and administrators should be able to demonstrate in a measurable way how they have improved each student’s skills.

         Nothing I do on a daily basis can be measured by bubbling in “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D.” Standardized testing does now show what I can do. It shows what I know about a given knowledge base.

         All of education should consider the examinations given through Career and Technical Education (CTE) certification programs. Each of those tests forces the student to prove what they can do – which would be impossible without understanding what is being asked and the knowledge foundation behind the task. They prove that demonstrable skills based tests can be given.

         Your mechanic takes these tests.

         Your administrative assistant takes these tests.

         Your chef takes these tests.

         Your HVAC repairman takes these tests.

         Your pharmacy technician (the person who ACTUALLY fills your prescription) takes these tests.

         Your nurse takes these tests.

         Despite most students in Texas now being required to complete pre-calculus to graduate from high school, employers still say our students graduate without the math skills necessary to do the jobs for which they are being hired. Bill Dagget, an educational researcher, found that the actual skills needed for these jobs were all taught by eighth grade. So why cannot a student who has progressed through pre-calculus succeed in work?

         Schools teach the skills necessary to pass a test.

         Schools rely on the test to measure their effectiveness (as it is communicated to the public through state and Federal ratings).

         The skills necessary to bubble in, “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D” have nothing to do with the workplace.

         Therefore, schools teach material in a way that has nothing to do with real world effectiveness.

         Ask almost any teacher and they will admit that they do not get to teach in a way that conveys the most practical knowledge because it would cause the test scores to go down and put the school’s rating (and their professional evaluation) to go down. Professional educators voice their frustration regularly, but politicians and other non-educators do not understand that there are more ways to measure growth than a bubble-in test. CTE has been doing it for years.

         Students who graduate from high school with a computer technician certification can START working at nearly $60,000 a year.

         Students who graduate from high school with various automotive technician certifications can START working at over $45,000 a year.

         We need to rethink what a test can do. Politicians. Business people. Educators. We all have a role in determining how to make our young people successful AND grow the economy. We have given the students four years of math – and the business people still say the same thing: our employees do not know the math skills for the job. Maybe it is time to move from “more” to “what.”

         Why doesn’t accounting count as a math credit?

         Why doesn’t business English count as a language arts credit?

         Without a doubt, because we are funded by taxes, education must be accountable to the public. The best way we can do that is to prepare our young people to be successful in college and careers. We have lived more than a decade with high stakes testing delivering greater returns according to the test yet diminishing returns in productivity. Career and Technical Education provides a roadmap for successful education programs that demonstrate effectiveness AND provide immediate economic returns.

         It can be done in public education. Listen to educators. Listen to business. Build the education system from kindergarten through post-graduate studies around those voices and we will have the most highly-skilled and productive workforce in the world. It was done in the 1950’s and it can be done now.

         Testing went wrong when it became the answer instead of a factor in measuring student success. Test scores are easy to understand and easy to communicate. Unfortunately, the world is much more complex than the matrix of a test. Eventually, enough will realize that a standardized test does not tell everything people wish it does and the pendulum will swing.

         Successful education programs that demonstrate effectiveness AND provide immediate economic returns can be done in public education. The sooner we change the paradigm of evaluation from a knowledge-based test to a true skills-based test, the sooner that will happen. CTE has proven it can happen. Learning from that example can help us get there sooner.

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