Standardized tests seemed to be a right of passage for me. I remember filling out bubble sheets in second grade, not knowing what year I was born, and copying that bit of information from the student in the next row. Because of that, I used the wrong year for at least four years of my elementary career. I’m sure that invalidated my scores, but I never knew about it. No matter which state we called home, there seemed to be some version of the same. One every year, we used a test booklet, and recorded our answer choices on the answer document. (The phrases tend to stick with you.) In high school, we added additional tests including the PSAT, SAT, ACT, and TASP. Even with a college degree, my husband and I sat for standardized tests like the EXCET to ensure our professional certifications. As I said, they seemed to be a rite of passage, and one that was part of the deal with this whole education package. But somehow, this rite of passage has morphed into a war of performance. Today, the bubble sheets are pre-bubbled to ensure the right birth year is recorded, and I feel certain such a mistake would result in fourth degree questioning from uniformed, badge-wearing officers of The Test. But despite the change in perspective, standardized tests are here to stay.
TAKS is the most current system of assessing Texas students on their knowledge of basic knowledge and skills. This system tests students in Reading and Math beginning in third grade, adding a writing test in fourth grade, and a science test in fifth grade. The pattern repeats in seventh and eighth grade, culminating in an Exit Level test in high school that has held the key to The Diploma. The new assessment, The State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, will do much of the same, with the Exit Level tests split into End of Course Exams, that averaged, will also determine Diploma eligibility.
This new assessment was the topic of conversation for Decatur parents during an informal informational meeting last week. Principals from various campuses outlined the changes in store for our students as the state makes the leap from TAKS to STAAR. The most significant differences between the two testing systems were outlined as follows: increased question rigor, increased test questions, decreased allotted time to test, and increased evaluation of critical thinking skills verses basic knowledge regurgitation. Parents examined sample questions illustrating these changes. Those samples included testing third graders on poetry interpretation; testing fourth graders, not only on their ability to tell stories, but also their ability to write and explain a concept in detail, and, testing fifth graders on cycles, patterns, and relationships in scientific concepts.
Rigor. Critical Thinking. Analysis. These are the buzzwords associated with this new question format. One goal of the state is to recognize student comprehension of grade level material, thus analyzing their preparedness for the next grade level. Parents at the meeting viewed some of the new questions as “tricky” and “meant to set up” the students. They questioned the ability of ten-year-old children to see through the distractions and cut to the meat of the issue. As a mother of three, and a teacher of seventy-six, I tend to agree. While I push for high expectations and critical thinking analysis, when I look at my kids I see their perspective. My third grader will be expected to understand the feeling a poem should convey to a reader, when perhaps on the same day he could be focused on carefully wrapping his tooth and placing it under his pillow for the Tooth Fairy. Children are concrete learners, and any workshop on brain research and development will tell you that even a teenager’s brain is not completely developed until around age eighteen. A teenager feels invincible and does not recognize the cause and effect of his actions because his brain is literally wired that way. Education should challenge and push students to draw conclusions and to analyze data, especially in a Steve Jobs world, but their academic success should not solely rest on the assessment of those skills.
A second goal of this test is to assess the achievement of specific college and career readiness goals associated with each grade level. The standard of education has changed from simple knowledge acquisition to concept application. With Google at our fingertips, no longer are we defined as intelligent based on our ability to master Trivial Pursuit. With this new definition of education, intelligence is characterized by the ability to interpret and apply that information creatively to a variety of situations. This change in the educational concept is causing growing pains in classrooms and schools nationwide, and I believe the mission in assessing these college and career readiness goals is in response to that change. However, in the actual classroom trenches, teachers see the faces of real children who come in with real, but individual, stories. College and career readiness might not be in every third grader’s or even every single high school senior’s playbook. Steve Jobs was a college dropout, as are Bill Gates, Mark Zukerman, Tom Hanks and Dustin Hoffman. They prove that the exception to the rule can redefine how the game is played.
Parents also questioned class size, student resources, teacher training, and classroom discipline as elements that impact student achievement and ultimately student success. The response to these concerns was disconcerting through no fault of the school district. While Decatur has provided teacher training to increase classroom productivity in response to these new standards, our decreased state budget is out of our local hands. Schools across the state are suffering the effects of legislation passed years ago, and changes will not be considered until the new Session bell rings. In the meantime, schools have been asked to increase the standard of student achievement, as well as to increase the overall passing rate to 100% by 2014, accomplishing both with decreased basic resources including teachers and textbooks. A daunting task, but one many educators have willingly accepted, despite worrisome doubts and fears.
Standardized tests are here to stay. We do need a consistent baseline at which to compare our individual achievements, as well as a gauge for instruction accountability. However, they should be structured in a way that allows this right of passage to document student, teacher, and school district growth rather than student interpretation of the State’s version of rigor and critical thinking analysis. In a time when the expectation of the workplace is collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, innovation, and technological adaptability, our standardized testing needs to showcase our dedication to academic perseverance instead of comparing, measuring, and judging our talents to a single standard of excellence.