Friday, August 1, 2014

How Test Scores Have Become 'Infallible Indicators of Teaching & Learning Quality'

Veteran Educator and education writer Marion Brady had some thought provoking words in this recent post on Valarie Strauss' Washington Post Answer Sheet blog. (See "What do standardized tests really measure?") In that post, Brady provides some gems that should provoke more discussion on the damage to public education that is occurring by those who insist, as Brady puts it, "Test scores are infallible indicators of quality."

Yesterday, in my post about how the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations in Tennessee has perverted both education practice and teacher evaluation, I called these individuals who insist on the "infallibility of test scores" as fundamentalists. The dictionary definition of "fundamentalist" is:
"Fundamentalist: strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles"
In the case of the testing fundamentalists, there is a strict adherence in the belief that tests scores are infallible indicators of quality of both teaching and learning. Why they might argue that they don't believe test scores are "infallible," they still use them as if they were infallible.  While I called them "fundamentalists" as a jest in part, but there is some truth to that statement. Too easily educators, politicians, businesses, and the general public have come to view "test scores as indicators of quality" and take the attitude "that numbers don't lie" and that they are "objective" and that belief is driving much of the strict adherence to current testing and accountability reform.

Get into an honest discussion with a true believer in test-scores-as-indicators-of-quality, and they sometimes acknowledge the problems with tests, the testing process. But, and this always happen, they resort to the argument, "Well, that's the best we've got." It's easy to see what's wrong with that argument. Basing the future of a child and a teacher on test scores and defining "teaching quality" as only test score results ignores the real complexity of learning.

When test scores are worshipped (or used in a fundamentalist manner) as the "true and infallible" indicator of teaching and learning quality, both are reduced to simplistic, rote activities. As Brady points out, "Teaching---trying to shape minds---is hard complicated work." But herein is the problem. Those who worship at the altar of bubble sheets, Pearson, and College Board, don't see learning as "trying to shape minds." They see learning as a simple imparting of knowledge from teacher to student. Brady points that out when he says that Bill Gates sees "learning as a product of teaching." By reducing teaching to a process of product delivery in the form of test scores, then all this blather about testing, accountability, and value-added measures makes sense. But if anyone argues against these beliefs that are labeled as "status-quo supporters" as if they were some kind of heretic to question this doctrine.

Test scores are only test scores. They might sometimes tell us something about teaching and learning, and sometimes they tell us more about a student's socioeconomic status, or the kinds of support the child is getting at home. Test scores are and always will be subject to error, and they aren't as "objective" as the true believers believe. We can't use test scores "as if they were infallible indicators of learning."

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