This is the week we hate standardized tests.
Our public school children have been hunched over them for days now, filling in bubbles on their N.C. End of Grade exams. They’re stressed. Their teachers are stressed.
One of those teachers, Justin Parmenter of Waddell Language Academy, spoke out about it Thursday in an Observer op-ed. Parmenter is a 7th grade language arts teacher, and he’s a good one. He was the 2015-16 CMS Teacher of the Year in the South Learning Community.
Parmenter thinks standardized testing is flawed. He says multiple-choice tests don’t capture all the skills children learn, like their ability to create, to refine their ideas, to communicate effectively.
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Which, incidentally, means the people who teach those skills aren’t being measured accurately, either.
He’s right. Tests don’t capture everything that happens in a classroom. Analytics tend to give us precise snapshots, not panoramic views.
But that doesn’t mean tests measure the wrong things. In fact, I like standardized tests because of what they do show:
▪ They show me how my child is doing. This is true whether your student is struggling or on the honors track. Tests show progress and stumbles, strengths and weaknesses. They’re tools.
▪ They sound alarms. I’ve told this story before: Last year, the parents in my son’s middle school math class got an email inviting their children for after-school tutoring. The students in that class were capable, and my son said they were doing fine on exams. So what was up? Turns out, the class had bombed an end-of-grade pre-test, and it had some catching up to do.
This is important. Testing isn’t just about monitoring low-performing students and teachers. It’s also about catching those we don’t know are behind.
▪ They measure skills we care about. Go find EOG sample tests. I have. For 5th grade math, my son needed to grasp early algebra, geometry and identifying complex numerical patterns. In reading, he needed to demonstrate the ability to identify fictional themes and use deduction to sift meaning from non-fiction material.
If that’s what teaching to the test involves, sign us up.
Are standardized tests hard? Yes, sometimes very hard. But the idea isn’t to give kids something they can ace. It’s to assess what they know and don’t know.
Which brings us back to Justin Parmenter, who doesn’t like what high-stakes tests measure. Or more precisely, he doesn’t like that so much learning (and teaching) seems to get left out of test score results.
I get this. It’s a tension we see more and more as analytics are introduced into new places.
Used to be, when I wrote something for the Charlotte Observer, it was judged on how “good” it was. Now, in this digital-first era, it’s also judged by how much it’s seen.
The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. A well-written, solidly reported newspaper story often gets a lot of page views. But that’s not always the case, and like teachers, newspaper writers worry that analytics don’t measure some important things, such as the impact a report can have.
Data, by nature, doesn’t deal in that kind of richness. Numbers don’t capture how a newspaper held an official accountable. They don’t notice that moment when a teacher and struggling student finally connect.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from numbers, or that they measure the wrong thing. It means they only measure some things.
Same for standardized tests. They’re not the only measurements we should rely on, but they can tell us a lot. They can even remind us that we don’t always get to pick the way we’re measured. That might be the hardest thing to learn of all.