Five Absurdities about High-Stakes Standardized Tests

by Valerie Strauss on August 7, 2013

Barely a day goes by when the education world isn’t treated to some new story involving high-stakes standardized tests, the chief metric of “accountability systems” in the modern era of school reform.

It might be about how student test scores went up or down or all around; about how standardized tests were incorrectly scored by giant companies that make millions from testing contracts; that some questions on the test don’t make any sense; that the high stakes being attached to the results — which are being used to evaluate students, teachers, principals, schools, districts and states — have gone from being unfair to preposterous.

Against this backdrop, here are five absurdities about all of the current standardized testing frenzy. Feel free to add your own and I can publish a more complete list.

1. Teachers are being evaluated on the test scores of students they never had and subjects they don’t teach.

This sounds like a fantasy, but alas, it is not. A number of states have passed laws requiring that teachers be evaluated in part (often in large part) by standardized test scores — but, most subjects don’t yet have standardized tests on which to attach high stakes. So complicated (and invalid) formulas are used to devise how teachers who don’t teach math and English are judged by the test scores of teachers who do.

In Florida, for example, legislators just passed a law making it illegal to evaluate teachers on standardized test scores of students they never taught. They did this because of cases such as that of Kim Cook, a teacher in Alachua, Fla., who, as this post explains, was evaluated at Irby Elementary, a K-2 school where she works and was named Teacher of the Year last December. Forty percent of her evaluation was based on test scores of students at Alachua Elementary, a school into which Irby feeds, whom she never taught.

Florida, it should be noted, is not the only place where teachers have been evaluated on test scores of students they didn’t have, or on test scores in subjects they don’t teach — Tennessee and the District created similar situations. This happened after the Obama administration, in its Race to the Top education initiative, required states to link teacher evaluation to “student growth” — as measured in test scores — in order to receive federal funds in the competition.

States, devising complicated ways to measure student growth, found themselves confronted with the problem that most teachers taught subjects for which there were no standardized tests. That led to a rush of field testing for assessments in all subjects (including yearbook) in many places, and systems that evaluated teachers on subjects and students they didn’t teach. It never made sense, but that didn’t seem to matter. This may sound like fiction, but it’s what actually happened. So goes the path of “school reform.”

2. Custodians have also been evaluated by student standardized test scores.
This really happened for years in Washington D.C., under the school system’s IMPACT evaluation system that began under former chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2009. The 2011-12 IMPACT guidebook for Custodian Staff (Group 19) included this:

School Value-Added Student Achievement Data (SVA) — This is a measure of the impact your school has on student learning over the course of the school year, as evidenced by the DC CAS. This component makes up 5 percent of your IMPACT score.

This 5 percent was dropped from this year’s manual.

The same held true for just about every adult in the building, including kitchen staff. Why? Officials said this was originally included to “instill a sense of teamwork among all staff.” Such an explanation seems to contradict Rhee’s spiel about teachers being the most important factor in a student’s education, but never mind.

3. Children who don’t have the mental capacity to distinguish between an apple and an orange are still required to take standardized tests.
I only wish this was an exaggeration. This happened in Florida, where a blind 9-year-old boy named Michael who was born with a brain stem but without most of his brain — the part that controls cognition — was forced to take a version of the state’s standardized test, known as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. You can read the hideous story here, here and here, but in this test-obsessed environment, Michael’s wasn’t the only recent case in Florida and the issue isn’t singular to Florida.

4. Teachers are evaluated on student test scores based on “value added modeling,” or VAM, complicated mathematical formulas that purportedly can tease out just how much influence a teacher has in the achievement of their students. Testing experts say these formulas can’t reliably accomplish this and too often label bad teachers as good and good teachers as bad.

Consider the case of Carolyn Abbott, who teaches mathematics to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Anderson School, a citywide gifted-and-talented school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though her students are highly successful, she somehow was rated as the worst 8th grade math teacher in the city. Read about it here and don’t think this kind of mistake is a rarity.

5. Reformers have attached high-stakes consequences to these tests even though the assessments:

–can’t assess the ability to think creatively or deeply
–are not considered reliable by experts
–are poor measures for how much learning a student has done.

This piece was first published by Answer Sheet Blog

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