Testing Controversy

One Teacher’s Story

By Erik L. Paulsen

Great controversy is erupting in my el­ementary school as my new principal shares her views on standardized testing. Fundamental  differences of opinion are apparent between her and the majority of teachers.

Prior to her arrival, I had two other principals who would use the results of standardized  testing as just one means  of reflecting upon the effectiveness  of  instruction at my school. After the results of the California Test of Basic Skills were made available each fall these principals would lead the staff through an analysis. Together, we would look for trends when comparing one sub-test to another, or when comparing the current year’s scores to previous ones. If a particular area or item was inconsistent, “we’d discuss it further. We’d attempt to determine why the scores in certain areas were higher or lower than would be anticipated. We would sometimes  look back at individual test items to see if the wording was clear or if the questions were related to things which were actually taught at our school.

When individual students scored much higher or lower than expected, red flags would go up. Then I, as the classroom teacher, would attempt to determine if my expectations and demands for these individuals were realistic. The test results were used a tool to help me to decide where attention might be needed. The standard­ized tests didn’t dictate instruction; they just steered it a little.

My new principal treated the results of the standardized testing much differently. She hasn’t yet devoted time to the interpretation of the test results. Instead, she centered the discussion at several staff meetings on, “Why have our school’s reading scores been lower than other schools in the district for the last three or four years?”

My naive response was, “Are we in some sort of competition with the other schools?” She answered, “Yes. What other yardstick does the community have to judge the quality of their neighborhood schools?”

I responded, “But do the standardized tests really measure what we feel is important for students to learn?”

My principal basically told us that it didn’t matter if we believed that the test might not measure what students should learn. She said, “What’s important are the perceptions of the community. We are like a corporation. We are required to publish an annual report, just like McDonald’s. We need to show that profits are good. That there have been gains in productivity. The only measures seen by the community are those darn standardized tests.”

By this time several members of the staff, myself included, were quite disturbed by her analogy. I gave the most obvious response. “We’re not dealing with hamburger here. Children’s progress cannot be interpreted as easily as the profit statement of a corporation.”

One teacher shared how he checked a student’s results by looking over the item analysis. As an example, out of 45 questions on the sub-test for reading comprehension, two incorrect responses gave one student a local percentile of 90%. Six in­ correct responses brought another student down to 62%. He felt that 39 correct responses out of 45 was quite respectable. The point he was trying to make was that the test results are often not very definitive. Therefore, we should not be dwelling on them too much. He felt that there are more effective means of informal evaluation. He cited several research studies which indicated that “one can master the subskills on standardized tests of reading achievement without being a good reader, and vice versa. That there is no clear, causal connection between an identifiable group of subskills and the actual act of reading.”

Another staff member kept interjecting sarcastically, “Well, if the tests are so im­portant, then let’s teach to the test.”

My principal, apparently taking this ad­vice at face value, suggested that students should probably be doing more paper and pencil tasks such as workbook type reading activities. She assumed that in this way students would become more skilled at tasks resembling the standardized tests.

This debate lingered for an hour. It was difficult and awkward, yet a very important discussion. I had trouble sleeping for several nights as I mulled over the implications of my new principal’s views on the testing issue. I was deeply disturbed by the suggestion of going back to the approach of skill, drill, and test that my principal seemed to be taking with reading instruction at the school.

An article from March/April 1987 Re­ thinking Schools titled “Rethinking Testing” struck me as being quite relevant to the testing controversy at my school. I made a copy to share and discuss with my principal. This article cautioned educators to consider the consequences of a test driven curriculum. One point dealt with the time from instruction that is sacrificed as many teachers devote energy toward teaching to the standardized test. The article states: “Teachers are under increasing pressure to drill students in the isolated skills they will be tested on. The result may be a gradual rise in test scores which reflect  more class time devoted to test preparation rather than a real gain in knowledge. Thus, students who perform better in’ basal skills tests may not be be­coming better readers.” As the Commission on Reading notes, “Many children manage to pass the mastery tests without learning to read very well.”

After reading the article, her reaction was still, “Regardless of the pros and cons, we are judged by test scores!!” She quoted the statement from the article that tests are “…the source of ultimate judgement on what a child has learned and is capable of.”

I began to feel as though my principal had a “test mentality” that was deeply ingrained in her. Perhaps one of her real concerns was that she wanted to demonstrate to the administration that the scores could be turned around. It is in my own belief that the scores for my school in the area of reading comprehension were lower because students learn what is taught. Most teachers in my building are leaning in the direction of a whole-language approach which doesn’t often resemble a multiple choice question. The basal ap­proach taken by the majority of teachers in this country is a closer approximation of a standardized test. 

Upon reflection, I feel strongly that it is vital that we spend our time educating parents as to what standardized tests do and do not accurately measure. We also need to communicate to parents what we feel is important that students learn. John Good­ lad stated it well: “There are goals beyond what tests can measure.”

Eric L. Paulsen teaches at Ravinia School in Highland Park, Illinois.