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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 11/30/2009

More standardized testing nightmares

By Valerie Strauss

A story I told recently about getting all of the answers on a standardized test wrong and being diagnosed with “overcomprehension” when I was in second grade elicited some great responses from dozens of you. Here are some of your test horror stories about testing--and at the end, one that the author calls “the ultimate” such disaster.


posted by arosenberg, 11/23
I have been an elementary school teacher for 25 years. I have seen standardized assessment rise up and engulf our focus in the classroom. While discussing a reading piece in class I asked a prediction question. There was no response. I let them know there was no wrong answer, I just wanted to know what they were thinking. A lone hand rose from the ranks. "Yes, David. What do you think will happen next?" The student hesitantly asked, "What are my choices?’ I informed him there were no choices, I just wanted to hear what he was thinking. He shrugged and said, "If I don’t get an A,B,C, or D, forget it." This is an example of what we have created.


posted by leuchars, 11/23
The problem of students being "too smart" for standardized testing still exists. The Arizona equivalent of SOLs (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, tests) at the high school level include a writing portion. Conventional wisdom amongst Honors and AP level AIMS-taking students is that if you write too well, you will be marked down just as if you write poorly.

My student’s experience is an example of this meme. She received a 768 out of a range of 754-900 (to qualify as "exceeds performance levels") on the Writing portion of the AIMS test. While a very respectable result, it falls at the lower end of the "exceeds" spectrum. This is from a student that has already taken English III Honors in 10th grade, and English 101 and 102 at the local Community College, receiving an "A" grade in all classes. Her ability to write well and fluently is not in question.

If a student this well prepared cannot reach the upper limits of the grading spectrum, exactly who is supposed to? There is something wrong with the grading criteria. The state has realized this, but they have not figured out how to overcome this unintended consequence of standardized testing....


posted by williamhorkan, 11/19
My son (in 1st grade at the time) was taking an overall assessment test one time and he got two of the questions wrong. On the first one, the teacher showed a picture of a truck and a picture of a bicycle and asked which weighed more. My son said that they both weighed the same (he told me his reasoning later on - he saw that they were both pictures and both pictures weighed the same). Another question was multiple choice. It stated "George Washington defended the US in the Revolutionary from: (this was the exact wording)." The answers were a) the French, b) the English, c) the Indians and d) Virginia. My son answered Virginia because that is where George Washington was from and that was his home at the time and in his mind Washington was defending from Virginia.


posted by jdbruin, 11/19
As a high school teacher and parent of elementary students, I’ve been shaking my head for 7 years now while they were taught how to "bubble" and take tests. In a good school with solid, experienced teachers. One question from a state approved curriculum asked my daughter to "estimate" the sum of two numbers. Great question except that the answers included the "exact" answer, which she chose and got wrong. In my eyes, she "estimated" perfectly, which was backed up by several math instructor friends, who felt that it was a poorly constructed question too. And don’t get me started on A-F grades for 1st graders... Can they read/count/play nice at their grade level or higher/lower? That’s all I care about.


posted by rlkidd58, 11/23
And how do you judge a students performance? Like our politicians say , "It’s not a perfect bill." Testing is not always perfect, but how else would you judge whether or not a student has learned the course material?

posted by Bramblerose, 11/23
rlkidd58 questioned "Testing is not always perfect, but how else would you judge whether or not a student has learned the course material?"

As a teacher, I assess my students in MANY different ways. I ask questions (higher order ones like explain, why/why not, connect, what would you do?), I use portfolios, reading and writing journals, personal reading and word lists, presentations, models/dioramas, pseudo-facebook pages, rap songs, skits, charades, yes/no cards for quick comprehension checks.... I could go on and on. I also assess my students before I teach them what I am supposed to in my curriculum. If they know it we can skip or extend it or spend more time on what they don’t know. I have worked both as a teacher and as a test developer and the ways I test my students are vastly superior to the standardized tests I used to write and assemble. I know testing companies always brag about how many ways they analyze their data through psychometrics, but remember there are lies, d*** lies and statistics.

Here is an example. One test I wrote for insisted we could only write questions to the benchmarks, not the indicators (for you non-teachers out there benchmarks are more general, indicators drive more classroom instruction).

One benchmark was "Explain the causes and consequences of the American Revolution." Some indicators were ‘Explain the significance of early battles such as Lexington and Concord,’ ‘Analyze important turning points of the war such as Valley Forge,’ ‘Analyze the importance of leaders such as Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.’

Sounds good, right? However, look back at the benchmark. Since the benchmark specifies CAUSES and CONSEQUENCES, we couldn’t write any test items unless it was about how something was a CAUSE or a CONSEQUENCE. Nothing about what actually happened DURING the war. See how many questions you can make that aren’t straight recall. Now fill an order for 20 items for this benchmark, oh and make sure your distracters are believable. Go on, try it.


posted by corbinb, 11/23
.... When I was in 6th grade, a geography test question asked: "Which island is Tokyo on?" Being a literal kid who liked geography, I racked my brains. Japan was clearly wrong because it was an island group, not a single island. It couldn’t be Shikoku - that was where Hiroshima was (or was that Nagasaki?) Maybe it was Kyushu instead. Hokkaido was the northernmost one ... wait, I got it! It’s Honshu. I wrote down "Honshu." My teacher just went TSK-TSK-TSK! I never understood what I had done wrong. I also was a lousy tester. I took the SAT a second time and improved my score by about 240 points. I did get into college though and got my Ph.D. from Berkeley about 15 years ago...Consultants are getting rich off of dysfunction and goofiness and we are creating generations of zombie testers who have no more interest in learning for learning’s sake than the man in the moon.


Posted by HBrownWhyte, 11/ 23
I don’t remember this personally, but my mother always told the story of how my brother and I both missed the gifted program in elementary by one question - Where does pork come from (or something similar)? We got it wrong, of course, because we were vegetarian....


Kay Dawson in an email:
Don’t get me started on standardized tests! I came home crying in second grade because we were taking these tests and I was confused because I could see so many answers, and when I worked for a textbook preparation company that prepared standardized tests, my opinion didn’t improve. ...

The ultimate standardized test horror story ... was the experience of my mother’s friend back in the ‘60s. She was told her daughter was not ready for first grade because the test showed she had a poor understanding of concepts. She was studying education at the time, so she knew enough to go to the teacher and calmly ask what the problem was.

On a test asking them to mark pictures of people in certain situations, when asked to mark the family taking a walk, the girl had marked the mother and two daughters instead of the mother, father, and two children. Her mother pointed out that the girl’s father had died when she was a baby and her family consisted of a mother and three daughters. “Are you going to explain to her that she doesn’t have a family?” the mother asked. The girl was put into first grade and did just fine.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 30, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  standardized tests  
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Regarding the standardized testing entry of late November, the teachers who have posted to this with their experiences and explanations of how testing and evaluating a child's "performance" in school are reassuring. They understand the great variety and complexity if all children's learning. What is most amazing is their vast knowledge and understanding of how learning in school works and doesn't work compared to the COMPLETE IGNORANCE of much of the public and all politicians. Yet they are the very ones creating and driving national policy. Everybody thinks they know best how to remedy American public education when they have no day-to-day experience in it. The worst are the studies and the advice handed down from the ivory-tower "experts" who have hardly spent more than a few years, if any, in a real classroom. And these are the people that government policy-makers listen to! Doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians and college professors get to run their own regulatory groups and people respect that and pay their fees. But public school teachers get blame and venom for any perceived shortcomings. And the pay is pathetic.
Please send all these communications to your local politicians and to Arne Duncan. They need major help or we all suffer the consequences for decades to come..

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 30, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

As a teacher I could write a book about the nightmares of "standardized testing." My first year of teaching I realized how little these type of tests accurately measure students' knowledge and abilities. One of my top students, who carefully considered each answer, received a lower test score than a student who simply marked answers at random because he was basically a non reader!

I got a chuckle out of the person who commented about a test where she had to indicate the color of grass. I remember from my student days being so frustrated by "multiple guess" tests that I took to writing notes in the margins of the tests to explain why I chosen the answers!

With NCLB the "bad dream" of standardized testing has become a true nightmare.

I teach 4th grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District in California. Over the past three weeks I have had to adminster three tests.
1. The quarterly math assessment to measure how students had mastered the content taught to that point. One problem: we just changed math series. They didn't revise the test. Students were tested on material that hadn't yet been taught!
2. The end of a reading theme unit test.
3. A science test that tested the first science unit, physical science.

During the course of the year I will have to give three more quarterly math assessments, science tests for earth and life science, and four more reading unit tests. All this in addition to the state mandated testing that takes place in spring.

These tests aren't ones you can finish off in a half hour or so. Each of them takes two to three days to administer during language arts, math, or science instructional time.

It takes a lot of time away from actual instruction. Kids get burned out. One year, just after the Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban movie came out, one of my test-weary students suddenly stood up, pointed his pencil at his test booklet and shouted "Expecto patronum!" I felt the same way!

One of my colleagues said that NCLB really means "No childhood left!"

Posted by: Jutti | November 30, 2009 10:41 PM | Report abuse

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