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What Do Test Scores Really Mean?

on January 12th, 2008 by mark

What do High Test Scores Really Mean?
By Mark Storer

Published in the Ventura County Star, Nov. 25, 2007

Academic Performance Index (API) scores have gone up. So have Average Yearly Performance (AYP) scores; and where they are down, school administrators are making pilgrimages to find out why. Neighborhoods around America are abuzz with the sound of test score mania and looking for definitive answers from school districts where their children will attend and get their educations. The two polar opposite questions to ask right now are: 1) would anyone put their child willingly in a school with a low API score? And 2) what exactly does a high API score mean?
The first question seems easy enough to answer. Even in the absence of a real definitive interpretation of what a high API score means, most parents want their school’s API score to be high. Whatever it means, it must indicate somehow that academic excellence is being pursued, right? One would like to think so.
The fact remains that the tests that reveal API scores don’t really indicate too much about how well children are being educated. This is not to say, of course, that schools with high test scores don’t have students who get good educations. What it does mean is that a high test score does not necessarily equal a well-educated child.
There are many reasons for this; reasons we all know are true but that for some reason, we are unwilling to admit to ourselves. The first one is that multiple-choice tests in general are not the ultimate tool in discovering whether or not a person has learned. They tend to rate fairly rote or superficial knowledge and they do not take into account a student’s ability to synthesize knowledge, for example—to take something he/she has learned and apply it to their own lives or their own circumstances—a skill that everyone agrees is vital.
Neither do these tests rate a student’s ability to actually think. Rather, their primary purpose is to indicate whether a child can either memorize enough information or at least recall a few of the items they have learned and regurgitate that information. By contrast, a subjective essay allows a student to use both information they have already learned as well as apply their own ability to think through that information and analyze, synthesize or otherwise demonstrate their ability to think through problems and solutions. Multiple-choice tests simply do not do that.
However, the course has definitely been charted and the result is that teachers spend more and more time on the practice of teaching test driven information at the expense of discussing ideas, concepts and other information that might serve to better motivate a student to want to learn.
A prime example of this is what happens in history classes. The current focus is on going quickly through American history so that all areas are covered in preparation for the state testing battery. The more nuanced and interesting pieces of history are forsaken in the interest of time. Instead of looking at the many diaries, letters, speeches and comments of people who actually went through the Civil War, for example, and therefore developing an understanding of it and igniting a passion for learning more about it, the current testing regime requires that teachers rush through the Civil War in a little less than two weeks and focus almost entirely on the larger general issues that give no rise to major discussion and analysis, thereby giving only a cursory understanding of this most important of American events.
So, public school hallways have become more absurdly painted with the green gray ectoplasm of educational-ese that tells students not how to think, but what to think. How can we expect that our children are actually growing “smarter” by testing them more? What do the tests reveal as a measurable and necessary part of being educated? Are the students actually better educated, more passionate about learning, more knowledgeable about various subjects?
Friends who work in private industry have told me that the drive is similar there. Conform and do what is assigned, don’t rock the boat–just follow instructions. The problem is that the corporation needs to make a profit and so maybe they’ve figured out that if these people do this set of tasks this way, they’ll make the profit. But I’m not making a profit–not at all. My task is to get students to think differently; to push their limits, to accept shortcomings, to appreciate problems and solutions–and to think for themselves.
The testing that is currently in place does not help students achieve that. And what’s more, it doesn’t really provide a real, meaningful interpretation of a student’s abilities. There are plenty of students who can bubble in the right answer. Even if they don’t know the right answer, they generally have a one in four chance of getting it right anyway. Certainly the critically thinking mind, the analytical process, is not being appropriately measured.
Perhaps the pendulum will swing again. One can only hope. Depressed as I get when I think of these issues, I watched with my daughter a short while ago, as a rainbow took shape at the forefront of bleak and gray clouds. We were awed by its presence and the brilliant colors as it stood to the east of us while small, almost imperceptible raindrops fell on us portending, perhaps, something more. “Wow, daddy–it’s very pretty,” she said to me. “It is that, isn’t it?” “Look at all the gray clouds behind it,” she said. And the clouds, while powerful and even majestic, did not subsume the brilliant colors.
Let’s pray that the brilliant colors of each of our children aren’t being subsumed.

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