A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 8

This is the 8th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Reason 8:  Oversimplification for the Purposes of Manipulation

A friend of mine recently argued that she valued standardized test score data because it showed her how her children were doing in school.  However, if you accept my premise that we should trust teachers then high stakes standardized test scores aren’t really that valuable.  Teachers have access to a number of ways to judge a student’s progress on a set of educational standards.  They are (mostly) trained to evaluate student achievement and they have a number of other assessments at their disposal.  My children take formative assessments on the computer approximately once a quarter that provide their teachers with usable and immediate feedback on their progress.  We do not oppose these tests because they help our sons’ teachers adjust instruction to their needs and because they don’t have high stakes or penalties attached to them.   In contrast, high stakes test scores are not made available to teachers or parents until well after they have been taken.  Too late for teachers and a snapshot of the past for parents.

What my friend was really saying, whether she recognized it or not, was that she wanted to know how her children performed compared to other children.  That’s what is really behind our desire for test score data in this country.  We look at percentile rank to see just how many kids are behind ours.  We are concerned if it’s not enough and relieved if it is.  We want to compare states with other states and America against the world.  I’m not slighting my friend here, it’s ingrained in our American souls.

And the test score is perfect this purpose.  It is a promise of our child’s capability all wrapped up in a neat package that is fairly easy to understand.  Deep down we understand that it really is only a snapshot of performance on a relatively limited assessment based on a subset of educational standards that was given in an unnatural environment on that given day.  But it is a number!  We love numbers.  Credit score of 750?  Here’s some money at a great interest rate!  Batting average of .400?  All time great.  2% on Rotten Tomatoes? Your movie sucks.  Numbers are the guarantee on the side of the box.

Test scores are the strings of the marionette, but who is moving them?
Test scores are the strings of the marionette, but who is moving them?

But at the same time that we look to numbers for approval and reassurance, others are using those same numbers to manipulate you.  This is possible because numbers are often an oversimplification of something more complicated – something much harder to understand.  As such, they can be twisted and spun to suit a purpose or agenda.  Test scores are also perfect for this purpose.  Over the next few days I’ll explain how.

For tomorrow:  Manipulation #1 – False crisis mentality