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NCLB Outrages

Shell game

Standardized tests help preserve the inequalities that our god â capitalism â revels in.

By Scott Phelps

I hear it so much, and no one questions it. All the time. Scores on standardized tests are called âstudent achievement.â I cringe because in all my years of teaching, I have never seen the experience of standardized curricula or standardized testing resonate with one single student. Not one. Itâs almost the antithesis of being human.

Humans by their very definition are all different, unique beings, treasure chests of gems that education should be drawing out, not silencing via this one-size-fits-all, teach-to-the-test stuff that is passing for education these days. Show me one standardized human being. Curricula that can be measured via standardized tests is necessarily quite limited to factoid-type stuff. Show me how that relates to real life and not just game shows.

More wool being pulled over the publicâs eyes is the assertion that the rising test scores in our state are evidence of increased learning. Not so. Psychometricians, those who create and study standardized testing in great depth, will tell you that over time there is this phenomenon called âtest creep.â Over time, teaching to the test creates higher scores. Teachers and students get used to the tests they are teaching and being taught toward. Test scores slowly rise, adults feel better and pat themselves on the back.

California scores showed this pattern of slowly rising scores for several years under the previously used SAT9 test. Then we changed to the California Standards Tests. Guess what happened? Scores fell! At first. Then we adjusted and scores began to rise again. And yet, on independent measures like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, scores are flat over many years, even decades, including the years of high-stakes testing and the accountability movement.

Itâs a giant shell game to make adults feel better about how well we are providing for our childrenâs âeducation.â Meanwhile, no one questions whether private schools are providing a quality education, even though they arenât measured via standardized tests.

What? Yes, itâs true. People just know that with all the social capital resources those families have, with all that tuition they pay to the school, those children are getting a good education. You see, inside we know itâs about resources. We know it so well that we donât even bother to measure the private schools to make sure theyâre providing a good education.

So what do we do to make ourselves feel better about the lack of resources provided to public schools? We try to squeeze blood from turnips. We measure the heck out of them and hold them accountable to impossible levels of performance on standardized tests!

I say impossible because the current installment of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, called NCLB, mandates that 100 percent of children be proficient by 2014.

Now who would argue with that noble goal? Uh, I would. You see, the proficiency level is set at about the performance level of the average student. And the test-makers can only sell and justify the validity of their tests if the test instruments produce normal distributions of success, where some small portion of the test items are answered correctly by most students, a large portion of items are answered correctly by about half of the students and another small portion of the items are answered correctly by only a small number of students.

A test is not worthy of purchase or use if it doesnât produce this distribution for a representative sample of students. And a representative sample means a sample that is representative of the wide diversity of students in our public schools, diversity of family income, parent education level, etc.

So you can see that the tests are designed to produce the results that they produce. Itâs as simple as that. Yet we applaud ourselves when our scores creep up and we bemoan the continuing gap between the performance of the students from families with ample resources and those with little resources. Itâs bizarre, especially when one looks just a little deeper at how those test makers manage to produce a normal distribution of success across the items on the test.

Anyone want to guess how they do it? The answer is staring you in the face. They use questions for which student success in answering them depends on the studentâs socio-economic status. Thatâs right. Itâs so simple itâs brilliant.

Ask questions about reading passages like âWhat field does this person work in?â or âWhat does âdoublesâ refer to in this passage?â Field? Uh, right field? Doubles? I think the kids who have actually seen tennis played might do a little bit better on that one, donât you think?

Youâve got to hand it to the test-makers. They help us preserve the inequalities that our god, capitalism, just revels in.

Scott Phelps is a member of the Pasadena Board of Education.

— Scott Phelps
Pasadena Weekly


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