Just a few days ago, the PISA test scores for 2012 were released. If you didn’t know what that test is, don’t worry – I didn’t either until just a few days ago. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment, and it’s an international test of student achievement that is given every three years. You know: one of those tests where Finland always outranks everybody and the U.S. receives mediocre scores, at best. This year was no different – Finland scored 4th in science, 7th in reading, and 15th in math. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the U.S. is below the worldwide average in all categories. (See the rankings here.) Many school reform advocates are quick to say that these low test scores show the need for broad changes in our public school system – and they are right. However, the kind of change they are thinking of is not the kind we need.
In a fascinating article on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, the president of the National Education Association and the president of Finland’s Trade Union of Education explain some of the reasons that Finland’s education system is so great. Now, I have heard some bemoan Finland’s low poverty rates and largely homogenous society as reasons for their high test scores. This post mentions these factors, but it also mentions unique aspects of the education system in Finland that undoubtedly play a role, including that Finland’s teachers have master’s degrees, get as much societal respect as physicians do in the U.S., are paid very well, and can’t get their jobs through “non-traditional” or alternative licensing as their U.S. counterparts can.
However, in my opinion, the most interesting factor of Finnish education is the lack of reliance on standardized testing. The article states: “High-performing academic countries, like Finland, do not believe that multiple-choice, computer-scored standardized tests can properly measure higher-order thinking skills. Instead, they rely heavily on essay-type responses as a critical part of timed exams, while also factoring in graded pieces of work that could not possibly be produced in a timed evaluation. Finnish students do not take a standardized test until the end of high school.”
In my opinion, this is exactly the approach that should be taken toward standardized testing in the United States. Ask any educator, and he or she will tell you that standardized test scores cannot accurately convey every nuance of a child’s education. For example, a child’s love of learning, academic engagement, voracious independent reading, and respect and empathy for others are all factors that deeply affect a child’s learning and achievement but cannot be tested using multiple choice or even open response test items. Multiple choice questions, which generally make up the vast majority of standardized test questions because they are cheaper to score, inherently measure low levels of knowledge and understanding. Essentially, they can only be used to test a child’s basic understanding or memory of a concept.
Even the “next generation of testing” that is supposedly coming with the Common Core State Standards has severe limitations in trying to assess higher order thinking skills. For example, PARCC (one consortium founded to create “next generation” tests for the CCSS) recently released sample items from its new tests. Let’s examine one of the 8th grade literacy items, since that happens to be what I teach. The question, which can be found on page 6 of this document, asks students to “create” a summary of an excerpt from Brian’s Winter by dragging four statements from a list into another column. Never mind that the students are not actually “creating” or “writing” their own summary, as the Common Core standard that this item supposedly assesses states, but the list of possible statements in this question includes ones that are true statements about the excerpt, but that are not correct answers because they “do not belong in a summary.” Last time I checked, there were not hard and fast rules about what belonged in a summary and what did not – who died and left PARCC in charge of creating these rules? This test item purports to measure an 8th grader’s skill in writing a summary; instead, it measures an 8th grader’s skill in figuring out what the almighty test writers think a summary should include. Sure, this is one test item on one test (and a sample released item, at that), and it is not necessarily representative of all standardized tests. However, it does illustrate that standardized items generally test low-level thinking and are sometimes subject to the test creators’ own biases about what is “correct” and what is not.
I have written all of this to say that I do not place a lot of faith in standardized test scores. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about them or I ignore them – that would be impossible in our country’s current education culture of accountability and teacher evaluation based on test scores. However, I also don’t spend a whole lot of time teaching to the test. I refuse to drill my students on open response writing and basic grammar concepts. Last year, I spent about two weeks of test preparation before the Arkansas Benchmark exams, and this year I plan to spend even less time, if any at all. In my opinion, what I do every single day should prepare my students to be excellent readers, writers, and thinkers – and if they are readers, writers, and thinkers, they can expect to do reasonably well on any test that tests those skills.
At Arkansas edCamp in October of this year, a teacher educator introduced me to an amazing book – Hurray for Diffendoofer Day. The book, which was started by Dr. Seuss before his death and finished by others, is about a small school that teaches their students to be creative, to love learning, and to learn whatever they want. When the evil of standardized testing is sprung on this school, without any preparation, the students take the test and pass with flying colors. If you haven’t read this book, read it; I plan to read it to my students right before they take the Arkansas Benchmark exam this spring.
I could insert a long rant here about how students are over-tested and tests are over-analyzed, but I’ve already ranted too much. In the end, I can’t change the culture of testing in America by myself, but I can change how I react to it in my classroom and in my school. I know it’s just a sappy children’s book, but the message of Diffendoofer Day still rings true to me. I believe that if I teach my students what is worth learning, and if I teach it well, they will do just fine on the standardized test. And, if they don’t, then it probably wasn’t a good test in the first place.