Now that this year's Pennsylvania State, No Child Left Behind-mandated achievement testing has drawn to a close, it's time to assess the assessments. How has the standardized testing of grade schoolers changed over the years? And how do these changes affect the most academically gifted of our students?
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
A generation ago the standard test was the Iowa Achievement Test. With No Child Left Behind, the stakes are much higher... and the tests much easier. This is because No Child Left Behind requires states to create tests to measure student achievement and to impose consequences on schools whose aggregate scores fall shy of the state-determined standards. The easiest way for a state deal with these requirements is to create tests with low enough standards that few of its schools will fail to meet them.
This creates problems not just for students in underperforming schools, but for students in general, including the academically gifted. The pressure to make adequate yearly progress works its way down from states to individual schools and their principals and teachers, causing the latter to spend much of their class time teaching to the test.
Teaching to low-level tests lowers the academic bar for everyone. What's the best route to adequate yearly progress? Minimizing the number of students who score "below basic" and maximizing the number of students who score "advanced." There's no time left, or any incentive, for addressing the needs of students whose skills already exceed the skills assessed on the tests.
Making matters worse, some school districts use individual test scores to screen applicants for admission to the best middle and high schools. In Philadelphia, for example, if you are below a certain percentile (85th or higher, depending on the school) you are automatically disqualified from special-admit schools, no matter your grades, teacher recommendations, or other qualifications. Since Philadelphia’s nonselective middle schools and high schools range from bad to terrible, the stakes are extremely high.
Here's where the replacement of the Iowa Achievement Test with the various lower-level state achievement tests becomes significant. Back in the days of Iowa, you could be in 7th grade and test at an 11th grade math or reading level. Now the best you can do is end up in the 99th percentile of your grade-level peers.
Consider how all this affects the prospects of a particular sort of bright student: one who turns off his or her brain when faced with easy problems and doesn't check his or her work. Back in the days of Iowa, however many careless mistakes such a child might make on grade-level questions, he or she could more than make up for this with correct answers to much harder, above-grade-level questions. In the age of No Child Left Behind, this is no longer possible. Today's low-bar test don't allow this child any way to "redeem" careless mistakes on easy questions. The statistical “noise” created by such mistakes in a testing instrument that sets too low a ceiling is simply too great to properly distinguish the brightest students from their peers.
The result? Some of these students may find themselves not only unable to attend the most academically engaging of our public high schools, but, like altogether too many of their peers, faced with totally unacceptable alternatives.