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Debating the Tests

In his weekly Class Struggle column, Jay Mathews presents an interesting discussion between two district superintendents about the need for "Big Tests". That title covers more than just the ever-expanding exams mandated by No Child Left behind to include the whole alphabet soup: AP, SAT, ACT, IB and more. Mathews arranged the debate when he read a message one of the superintendents sent to his staff.

Both men make some excellent points and I wish I could have been in on this discussion since I’d like to have both expand on some of their ideas. Here are just a couple of items that stood out for me.

Most importantly, I want us to help kids put Big Tests in their proper place so that our students do not make the mistake of thinking they measure their ability to learn, their potential to be successful, or their value as people. They are just tests. Nothing more.

I agree to the first point – we need to put these tests in their place – and disagree to the second. Many are not "just tests". The government and the community use them as so much more. Some are used as political weapons.

The only variables left for educators to control are those that support the testing system itself, ignoring by necessity what is best for children. Stephen Kramer, elementary teacher in Brush Prairie, Wash., has a poster in his classroom that he displays right next to the state standards to remind him of what is more important than the state tests:

1. Learning should be rooted in joy.
2. The most important thing to learn about reading is to love it.
3. We all need help with our writing.
4. For some of us, art and music are as important as breathing.
5. No lesson on math, reading, or writing is so important it can’t be interrupted for a lesson on honesty, generosity, or compassion.

Send a copy of that poster to Dr. Paige!

Across the nation, states have often recited the rhetoric that the BIG TESTS are solid, accurate measurements of what kids must know to be successful in our competitive world. Nothing could be further from the truth. In New York, for example, there are no validity studies on our high-stakes tests. There are many reliability studies, but reliability simply means that, under similar conditions, scores on the test should be similar in different test administrations. Unfortunately, a bad test given under like circumstances will yield the same awful results time and again. It is validity that determines whether or not the test measures what it sets out to measure.

Validity is harder and more expensive to measure, and much more difficult to implement as the group involved gets larger. However, a good teacher knows very quickly whether or not the assessments they’re giving are valid.

There’s much more to this discussion. It’s a long article but well worth the time to read it all.


  1. Chris C.

    Many are not “just tests”. The government and the community use them as so much more. Some are used as political weapons.
    Right, but Riley said “negative outcomes… are the result of the misunderstanding and abuse of their purposes and results.”

    I really like Riley’s quote that you pulled – he succintly describes how tests can be problematic when misused. None of the mentioned tests measures a student’s potential/ability to learn. But when these test scores are slapped on student transcripts or become graduation requirements, the individual’s test score becomes emphasized rather than the test’s ability to assess a school’s curriculum.

  2. shari

    Good post. One point: I think they did a good job considering it’s hard to talk about ‘Big Tests’ when there are so many types of tests with different purposes and different penalties. Like comparing apples and oranges and kiwis. E.g. ‘achievement’ tests are different then ‘aptitude’ tests. Both are dependant on how well they are designed, do they measure what you’re testing for, cultural variables and so on.

    The problem: when the numbers end up being a label for the kid (and for the school). It’s too easy to be seduced by numbers. I’m repeating Chris above here.

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