Thursday, September 29, 2011

I can't take the Globe and Mail seriously

I came across this Globe and Mail Editorial titled: Ontario NDP needs lesson on standardized testing, and I found myself as disappointed as I was unsurprised by reading yet another member of the popular press coming to the aid of standardized testing:
Suggesting that Ontario’s province-wide Grade 3 and 6 literacy and math tests are useless, as the New Democratic Party’s education critic Rosario Marchese did this week, is to reveal a party that is not to be taken seriously, at least on education. 
This is the party that, when it governed Ontario under Bob Rae, set up a royal commission that recommended these very tests. The Conservative Party later implemented the testing regime, and the Liberal government has added resources that have helped literacy scores improve markedly. 
But Mr. Marchese cited the hoariest of myths about the tests – that they “produce only a number,” and that teachers simply “teach to the test.” “A political tool, rather than a pedagogical tool.” 
Only a number? Schools learn how they did on each skill or “learning expectation” assessed – drawing inferences, for instance, or developing a topic. They can compare each result with that of the board and province. These numbers spur improvements in teaching practice. Teach to the test? The literacy tests measure higher-order thinking; teaching pupils how to find hidden meanings in a text would be a great accomplishment indeed. 
It is Mr. Marchese who has turned the pedagogical tool his party helped create into a political tool.
Until the Globe and Mail understands the following, I will have a hard time taking them seriously:
  • Norm referenced tests were never intended to measure the quality of learning or teaching.
  • Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old. Grade 3 students tend to be around 8 years old.
  • Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking. 
  • The time, energy, and money that are being devoted to preparing students for standardized tests have to come from somewhere. There is something inherently disturbing about chasing high scores and calling it learning.
  • Campbell's Law is as prevalent as it is ignored: the more any one indicator (such as test scores) are used for decision making, the more that indicator will suffer from corruption, therefore, bastardizing the very processes it was meant to monitor.
  • High test scores tend to be an echo chamber for affluence and/or test preparation.
  • Using test scores to "spur improvements" is a great way to encourage an education system to know more about raising scores than raising children. By the way, "spur" is a very telling verb to use in reference to what standardized testing actually does to those in the classroom. If the metaphor is to relate a cowboy goading, impelling or urging his horse by impaling it with his metallic spurs, I'm left wondering how this metaphor is ever appropriate when we are talking about people in a learning environment.
  • Literacy tests that are multiple choice may be clever but they can never be authentic nor can they effectively measure higher-order thinking.
  • Support for testing seems to grow as you move away from the students.
If you read this editorial carefully, you'll see that standardized testing is not being used as a pedagogical tool to further educational purposes -- rather, standardized testing is a political tool used to further nothing more than more politics.

Let me be clear, I'm not writing this to defend the NDP. For the record, I've never voted for the NDP in any election. Ever. But that is beside the point.

What I am proposing is that we need to have a far more sophisticated and mature conversation about education than what standardized testing can ever offer us.

If we truly care about things like teaching children how to find the hidden meaning behind a text, the popular press, politicians and policy-makers need to stop pretending the real meaning of education can be found in a test score.

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