Standards of Learning: good; standardised tests: bad

by Yule Heibel on July 15, 2005

I’m still engaged in a continuing immersion course in e-learning theory, hitting upon more and more terrific resources (blogs, articles, reports) online. But before I link to any more of these, there’s this gem:

It’s an article that deals with “standards of learning” (SOLs) and “standardised testing.” It has one of the most concise summations of what, exactly, is wrong with standardised tests. The article is called State Learning Standards as Productive Curricular Objectives; SOLs Aren’t Destroying Teaching and Learning, the Tests Are, by Joel A. English (apt name, as he teaches English at the university level…).

On the third page of English’s article, Tests (click on the yellow tab), he gives an example from a grade 3 standardised test. The third grader is asked to read a weird, charming, and heavily moralistic tale about a girl who has a great talent for beekeeping, is offered a chance to sell the honey at market, but through haste, inattention, and a case of counting chickens before they’re hatched, loses her chance to make any money. The test then asks the third grader several questions that have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the story. The third grader is asked to identify which word out of a list of several rhymes with another word; what a specific word means; and which sequence of words out a list of several is in alphabetical order. The questions are so jarringly out of synch with the story passage that anyone not “drilled” in test-taking has to have a mental crisis when they read them. As English puts it, the test is essentially antithetical to the reading experience:

While reading the story, the worst thing a third grader can do is to enjoy it, buy into it—which is not only perhaps the most natural reaction to a story about a girl who loves tending tame bees and who achieves the possibility of getting a shopping spree out of the deal, but it is also perhaps the English teacher’s hope for students–that they’ll read, gain interest in, identify with, and enjoy the reading. However, if the third grader enjoys this bit of literature, she is likely to be thrown off when immediately being asked about rhyming words that have nothing to do with the story, definitions almost all of which fit within the narrative, and lists of words to alphabetize. Clearly, the student would be better not to read the story at all. Is that what this exam is trying to teach the third grader? [Tests…]

Another example, this time from a 5th grade test, asks the student what the best application to use would be if someone wanted to keep a computer file of all his friends and their addresses. The answer list includes: A. Database* B. Graphics C. Spreadsheet D. Word processing. “A” is supposed to be the right answer. But English points out:

Best application to use for what? If he is going to share the file with other friends, he’d be better to use D. Word processing, and save it as a Rich Text Format file. Or perhaps put it on the web for everyone to see (E. Netscape Composer). If he is keeping the file for himself, why on earth would it matter which he chose (F. Whichever he’s comfortable with). [Tests…]

He’s absolutely right. Reading these test questions, one has a visceral sense of having brain surgery — albeit a lobotomy. The scary part is that too many of us have had so many lobotomies that we actually consider these questions carefully and end up deeming them valid….

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