Watch out – I have a real frustration here that may turn into a protest in this post.
I’m mad as heck. I’m watching teachers struggle to implement STEM. They love seeing the kids come alive when working on STEM projects. They want to provide these kinds of hands-on, problem-solving experiences to help them integrate and make sense of their learning. The teachers “get it.”
Instead — and here’s my frustration — they find themselves spending class time drilling on objectives that are going to be on a standardized multiple choice test. And the sheer number of tested objectives doesn’t leave time for the flexibility needed to implement STEM curriculum.
I gave multiple choice tests when I taught middle school – some were standardized and some criterion referenced. Who hasn’t used those? But I used them as part of a broader assessment package that included lab practicals, oral assessments, opened-ended tests, and observations of teamwork and the use and handling of equipment. Broad spectrum evaluation gives an accurate picture of a student and of how you’re doing as a teacher as well.
I know the arguments
I’ve heard standardized testing advocates tout the value of these tests. Among other things they tell me:
• These tests will tell you what your students know about science. Sure they will – assuming the students are good readers and can understand the questions. And assuming I didn’t go AWOL one week and teach about the wild weather taking place all around us, rather the objectives in the pacing guide. We lived in hurricane country, and when one hit the area, it provided tremendous student motivation and interest in weather.
Let’s also assume the booming thunderstorm outside while the test was being given didn’t create fear or uneasiness on the part of the students. And the hard-knock kids in the school where I taught didn’t have a crisis the night before – like Carla, who took the test after two men shot someone in her front yard. Yeah – that one-day standardized science test is really a great stand-alone judge of my students’ knowledge. NOT.
• The test assesses higher order thinking skills and asks students to apply their knowledge to solve problems. I can hear it now: Employer to employee – “Never mind about those real world problem-solving skills. What we’re really looking for is someone who can apply what they know on a higher-order thinking bubble test.”
I’m going to start cussing now
Dadgum it! (Dadgum was my grandfather’s choice of “D” word.) Students need to be able to do more than work through paper and pencil problems. In all fairness, pencil and paper can be a strong planning step in actually implementing a hands-on solution for real world problem. But it can’t stop there.
Students need the kind of inquiry-based coursework that STEM represents to prepare them for life as a successful adult, and we can’t require teachers to spend large chunks of their time preparing our students for a standardized test.
Obviously I’m not being totally objective about this issue. I have to admit that my bias against high stakes testing bubbled to the surface again this week when I read an excellent post by Seattle teacher Lindsey Durant, Conscientious Objection to Standardized Testing and Bucking Convention in My Classroom, writing about testing protests in her city. Now there’s a gutsy group of teachers I’d be proud to associate with.
Let’s measure real learning
STEM practices provide students with opportunity to develop real skills. They can boost their thinking and reasoning power by solving real problems together. Teaching STEM is complex – all of the learning won’t be captured by a multiple choice test. We need more ongoing collaboration between the education research community and the practical application community to come up with non-intrusive systems of measuring real learning.
I do try to keep in mind that these tests can have some value if the questions are well written. And if the questions are matched to contemporary teaching and learning goals. And if there’s still time for “teachable moments” in the curriculum. And if they support programs like STEM. Will that happen with the new assessments for the Common Core? Maybe. We haven’t seen them yet. But it won’t just about about the tests — it will be about how high the stakes are — the accountability policies and the pressure they can put on teachers, who have spent the last decade and more on the ‘testing defensive’ and have certainly learned how to duck and cover.
My thoughts to the test-makers and policy makers and top education leaders: Please step back and support the professionals (the teachers) in doing their real job before test-passion obliterates the love of learning.