The whole “testing” project has been a study in unintended consequences. I can remember taking them myself in 5th grade. One day in the spring, focused generally on vocabulary and math computation. By the time I had arrived at high school there was a mandatory test in English Writing to be passed before graduation. I am in no way implying that I am a long lost Bronte but I was surprised to find that I had failed. The teacher explained while I had written a lovely essay I had failed to write a thesis with three points and then site them in the text. This was the first year and in the days before test prep was even an idea. Needless to say the next time I passed with flying colors as I knew what was expected. So began the cycle in public schools of test prep that continues to this day.
By the time my child started taking tests in 2nd grade, in a private school by the way, weeks of handouts with reading selections and multiple choice questions were given to “get the kids ready”. The test took 2 weeks to administer, each day doing a different section for an hour. I can only imagine the even greater pressure at low performing public schools. Of course if we tie “real-world” consequences people in the real world will want to avoid those consequences and look for whatever, hopefully quick and cheap, method to make it happen.
Which brought the next set of unintended outcomes; everyone realized that the rising test scores were not really reflecting rising knowledge. What is the solution, new “better tests”. Of course the tests needed to be harder to prep for and the answer to that was to make them a bit trickier but inevitably this leads to a test writer’s idea of a clever trick being missed by someone who doesn’t have their perspective. More writing, less multiple choice with the result being formulaic answers being emphasized to ensure that the few seconds that the grader spends on your test they are able to quickly see you have completed the checklist. In fact I think that move to greater written assessments on standardized tests is the greatest scandal that has yet to be fully exposed. There is no way to give a mass test and have individual grading be anything other cursory and formulaic. So much for the much vaunted critical thinking.
Yet the tests are necessary. We do see that even with similar populations schools are achieving different things. Whether that is curriculum, leadership or teaching we don’t always know but we have a right to know that these differences exist. Of course the disparity between rich and poor will also always exist no amount of clever test writing will take that away. We seem much less concerned about the disparity between top private schools and excellent public schools.
Of course I can’t imagine anyone even considering a backwards step towards simpler assessments so we continue on at this hopeless task.