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NCLB Outrages

Popham Says Judging Schools Is Right But They're Using the Wrong Test

Ohanian Comment: Popham notes that educators didn't sound the alarm before the passage of NCLB. One can only wonder why most of them are still rolling over and playing dead. What will it take for teachers to rise up and say, "Hell no, we won't go--marching in lockstep to the federal tune"?

"You can't measure a temperature with a teaspoon," says testing and assessment expert Dr. W. James Popham. "It's the wrong tool."

Discussing the options open to teachers for dealing with the testing nightmare is
testing and assessment expert Dr. W. James Popham.

Participants in the Instruction and Professional Development Strand at CTA's Summer Institute include Elise Porter from Vista....
Likewise, the emeritus professor of education at UCLA told teacher leaders at CTA's Summer Institute, you can't use standardized achievement tests to measure student performance. They're not designed to measure what's being taught or learned, but what knowledge or aptitude is being brought to the table. In fact, if a test item is answered correctly by too many students, it's taken off the test in the next revision. A teacher who does a good job and teaches students the material thoroughly will not be rewarded for the effort.

The original test was developed to identify good officer candidates among Army troops. It was a good test for its purpose - to create a spread of test-takers, spot the best/ worst, and predict how well individuals would perform - but the alpha model, as it was called, was "adopted lock, stock and norm-referenced barrel by the makers of the standardized achievement test."

What teachers want and need is "instructionally supportive tests that provide clear descriptions of what's tested; measure a modest number of curricular aims; and supply instructionally informative results." In other words, they need tests that give them information they can use to adjust their teaching and fill gaps in student knowledge in a timely fashion.

Teachers are in a predicament, said Popham. They can't complain about the tests too loudly. "Attempts to have the [test] replaced by instructionally supportive assessments will be seen as a flight from accountability."

However, teachers can arm themselves with information as to why standardized tests don't measure what they're supposed to and help parents understand how the wool is being pulled over their eyes. They need to be able to explain the likely impact of unsound tests, why inappropriate tests give schools inappropriate labels, how tests may measure what students bring to school rather than what they learn, and how to judge what schools are doing the right way. "We have to educate parents and pertinent policy-makers about the evaluative inappropriateness of standardized achievement tests. And we have to collect convincing evidence signifying that students are learning worthwhile things."

If something isn't done, Popham said, test prep will become even more excessive than it already is; schools will continue to emphasize test-focused drilling at the expense of the curriculum; and students who are poor test-takers will get the subtle message that they should not even try.

The education profession did not sound the alarm effectively enough before the federal government enacted the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the so-called No Child Left Behind Act of 2001). The federal program is using the wrong kind of test to judge schools. "It's our fault as a profession," said Popham. "It's time to fix it."

But before the education profession can tell others how to fix the problem, "we have to understand it ourselves."

— Trudy Stephenson Willis
Judging schools is right task, but it uses the wrong test
California Educator


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