As I drove to work this morning, NPR played a piece about standardized testing in California. Try as I might, I can’t find the link to the story, so I’ll give you a similar link from the Mercury News. Basically, California plans to phase out standardized testing and use a computer-based test that attempts to measure critical thinking instead. This is all part of the adoption of the National Common Core Standards.
Students will enter their responses into the computer, typing in what they think instead of selecting from a list of choices. On the surface, this may sound better than multiple choice. However, low income kids often do not have access to computers at home, while their wealthier counterparts often have personal devices at their disposal. The same goes at school. Some schools in California have a laptop for every kid, then there are schools like mine, with one computer lab shared by grades K-12.
As an added layer, English learners (ELs) communicate differently than their English-only peers, making their responses hard to compare. Even if the tests adjust for ELs, many families of ELs are afraid to identify as non-English speaking at home, making it impossible for schools to legally designate countless students who would benefit from the modifications.
As much as standardized testing may get under my skin, it is a way to measure students in all socioeconomic groups with less favor given to more privileged populations. Sure, there are still disparities in accessing the content on the test, as an EL fifth grader reading at a first grade level may not be able to accurately demonstrate his ability to think through problems he cannot 100% read, but at least he does not also have to hunt and peck his way through the test on a keyboard. Instead, he can pick an option that verbalizes what he may not be able to write on his own.
My two cents. If we want to fix education, open-ended testing on computers is not the answer. I hope I am proven wrong, (especially if the state actually goes through with it and I have to give these tests to my students). However, my initial impression is that a shift of this nature gives unfair advantage to students with wealthier backgrounds. True assessment of understanding requires different modes of input/output for different students. Traditional standardized tests may not fit the bill, but the solution seems worse.
I worry that our desperation for education reform is creating outcomes that do not reflect the realities of teaching students with different learning needs. I’ll leave you with a link to a Huffington Post article that illustrates some of the other attempts at education reform underway. I’d comment but that would be a whole different 500+ word entry, (and this teacher is a little on the tired side already).
Instead, I’ll just say that my school is part of a huge trial evaluation program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the next five years to increase teacher effectiveness. I was also trained through a residency program funded by these same grants. As weird as it is to think about, I am one of those data points that will shape the debate on reform. So far my little dot is more effective than expected, but also a little wary of the implications.