Friday, July 29, 2016

Misunderstanding standardized tests and quality

Someone recently shared an article by a very thoughtful writer who acknowledged that while standardized testing has shortcomings it is nevertheless necessary for understanding something about the quality of our schools. This once again shows that even very smart people have bought into the idea that standardized test scores are an indicator of quality. That is a pervasive fallacy we've been fighting since the invention of a test capable of rank ordering people. The damn psychologists all those years ago were interested in rank ordering because they saw it as a way to confirm their social and racial biases as being based in the notion that they were better than their non-white, non-male peers. They failed to see that the consistency in their results had to do with the fact that society didn't change much while they were doing their work as opposed to repeatedly confirming their stupid, racist, sexist biases.

Standardized testing continues to play into the larger narratives of competitiveness and survival of the fittest, and it is supported (or tolerated) by those in power since like those early psychologists it helps confirm the rightness of a status quo that is stacked in their favor. Arguing against standardized testing as the basis for judging schools often looks like an argument against basic American tenets, and if those in power actually get around to agreeing they risk undoing the very status quo that helps prop them (us) up.

That's why I go all the way back to the moment when standardized testing was invented. When you can get people to understand it was invented as a tool to analyze something that could not be directly observed and for which no measuring tape existed, it begins to create an aha moment. When you show that even those inventors admitted to themselves that they weren't actually measuring the amount of anything it starts to get people thinking. And when you show that the stability in such measures is because of their foundation in statistical averages, you can start to show the limitations in such measures. If you can get people that far into the argument.

What we still lack, however, is an easily understood, easily repeatable counter-narrative, one that can say, "it is imperative that we replace the paradigm of rank ordering students with xxx." We can start to describe the criteria for it: one in which all students can succeed (not that they necessarily will), one which acknowledges the massive differences in opportunity shown in a rank ordering need not doom those at the bottom to always being at the bottom, etc., but the thing itself is elusive.

My most recent attempt at a new narrative--one I'm still formulating--is this: America is not a zero-sum game with the requirement to have both winners and losers, so why do we depend so heavily or rank order testing that does just that? America will be ever so much better when we realize that not only can the economy support a world where the vast majority of students achieve excellence, but that is in fact a necessary thing if we are to preserve our standing in a world that is quickly gaining on us.

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