We live in a data-driven era. Technology has given us the possibility to sift through more data in five minutes than our ancestors could have considered in a lifetime. Many of those in government who are championing educational reform have turned to tests like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to quantify progress being made. At schools like Pike, many families become very concerned about standardized tests like the SSAT, as their children consider applying to secondary schools. So, how important are these tests, and what do they really tell us?
I admit to being a long-time skeptic of fill-in-the-bubble tests. Multiple-choice tests tend to ask for specific data and are not as effective at determining whether children understand more abstract concepts. It is difficult to write multiple-choice questions that are not overly specific or misleading. Also, by citing specific percentiles to describe a child’s performance, these tests can create the illusion of scientific precision that even the designers of the tests say is not accurate. Yet, it would be wrong to state that the tests have no validity or value. They do give us an outside standard against which to measure our students and their progress, and we do review the results of standardized tests each year to see if there are areas where our students have not performed as well as we might have predicted. While there might not be a statistically significant difference between students who are ten percentile points apart, there are certainly differences between students at opposite ends of the spectrum of students being tested.
Fairly regularly, there are articles citing how poorly American students fare in standardized testing (e.g. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-11/u-s-schoolchildren-lag-asian-peers-on-academic-tests.html ). Even though such studies can look like they are presenting irrefutable facts and are comparing apples to apples, there are always questions that should be asked, such as, “What type of thinking do these tests call for, and what groups of students are taking the test?” For instance, in many countries, weaker students are weeded out of the system early on, which is not the case in the US. Also, I find it interesting that Asian families are often trying to get their children into American schools despite these scores. On an exchange to China that I was part of several years ago, it was clear to me that there was a real interest by Chinese educators to learn more about how American schools fostered creativity in its students. Are standardized tests assessing a student’s ability to crunch numbers, or to use that data to come up with new hypotheses? This question is one of the reasons Pike has joined with twenty other independent elementary schools from around the country and the Educational Testing Service to design an assessment that looks at teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, time management, and curiosity. It has been a fascinating experience, and we are still in the design phase. Can a standardized test measure these areas? We will see.
As far as how parents of children applying to secondary schools should view standardized tests, there are no simple answers. Do the scores play a role in the admission process? Yes. Are they the determining factor? No. So, how seriously should they be taken? Should we hire a SSAT tutor? As you can see, there may be more questions than answers. You may have heard that there has been some concern from some of our peer schools on the North Shore that variations in this year’s test have resulted in lower scores than those schools would have expected from some of their students. We have talked to the Director of the SSATB, Heather Hoerle, about this year’s results, and here is part of her response:
“The 2012-13 standard test data are demonstrating the expected bell curves for each administration this year, which means our tests are doing exactly what they are designed to do – perform at the .50 level, with an average difficulty of 50%. Practical use of our test scores depends on interpretation of the data over time, and in introducing new SSAT forms this year, we have equated back to performance on prior forms.”
While the overall data have been consistent, we did see individual drops for some students from their seventh grade numbers. It is important to remember that they move to a different level of the test from seventh to eighth grade. Another variable is the fact that our students are adolescents, which by definition means they are in a period of their lives when their behavior and performance can be erratic. I have been speaking with secondary school admission directors, and they have assured me that they will continue to look at all the data, rather than any one grade or test score, in an attempt to understand the whole child. I can tell you from years of experience that these admission officers are real experts at what they do and are truly looking at strengths more than deficits. Therefore, what about the questions at the start of the paragraph? The scores are a factor, not the factor. Test preparation can help ease a student’s mind and give him or her strategies, but our students have done well with and without that preparation. I advise families to talk with their very able secondary school advisors as they make that decision for their child.
Standardized testing has been with us for a very long time and will be here for years to come. It does provide some information and can raise interesting and important questions. The challenge as I see it is to not let the tests become an end in themselves, which can then distract us from our primary task of educating our children in a much broader context than any multiple choice test can ever assess.