As we attempt to change schools, are test scores indicators of learning?

by Steve Wyckoff on April 19, 2010

It seems to me that the only acceptable measure of school change is standardized test scores. I have a real problem with that. It’s not that I devalue standardized test scores completely, I do believe that they are one small indicator of how we’re doing. But when I see the over emphasis on standardized test scores I have to shake my head.

I hear the stories from teachers and parents about the crazy things we do in order to raise test scores. I’m completely convinced that we spend more time on test taking strategies, and memorizing material for tests, then we do on real learning.

I am constantly reminding myself, and usually anyone else that will listen, about the analogy of getting your drivers license. When you got your drivers license you took two tests, a written test and a driving test. It’s obvious which one is the more meaningful. In fact in most states, perhaps all states, when you renew your driver’s license, send you the test in the mail along with the answers. That’s because the stuff that’s on the test is meaningless in the real context of driving and we don’t remember it. The truly important stuff we remember because we practice it on a daily basis, and because for the most part it is non-conscious.

It’s not that the stuff being tested isn’t true, it’s just that out of context of driving its meaningless. For example, how far before you turn are you supposed to turn on your turn indicator? When I ask this question of an audience most of them get it wrong, not because they can’t drive but because the context of driving often times dictates using your turn signal sooner than the law requires.

It’s the same on our standardized tests. The stuff we test our kids on is true and in many cases used in context would be meaningful. But taught, and tested out of context makes what the student is learning meaningless.

We should be testing the student’s ability to use the context in new and, predictable and unpredictable situations. That’s when the material is useful.

I always cringe when I hear an educators talk about “improved achievement.” Real school change would include authentic assessment of the use and application of knowledge and skills in a contextually based problem. – Steve Wyckoff

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