30 June 2009

Speaking of Unjust Rewards

A few days ago, I posted about the continuing saga of paying middle school students for "good" scores on standardized tests. Here's another take on the issue:

For as long as students have had to take state assessment tests, middle school students have been bombing on them.

Even students who scored well in elementary school and those who go on to ace the high school Regents exams tend to get caught in the middle school slump.

Locally, a growing number of school administrators think they have come up with a solution: bribery.

Some schools base final exam grades on students’ scores on the state assessments. Others exempt students who score a 3 or 4 on a state test—on a scale of 1 to 4—from having to take the final exam in a subject.

For students at Hamburg Middle School, that means not having to come to school on exam day.

“Telling an eighth-grader you get an extra day off is a pretty good motivator,” said Gregg J. Davis, assistant superintendent of information services in the Hamburg School District.

“I’ve seen the scores go up, so there’s a lot of positives in that. Three years ago, I think our eighth-grade scores were in the 60s. Now they’re in the 80s,” he said of the percentage of students scoring at proficiency. “That’s a pretty good leap.”

Other schools offer equally glowing reports about their students’ improvements.

But some experts say the results don’t justify using student scores in a way the state never intended.

“The state assessments were designed to gauge student progress toward the [state learning] standards, not as individual student achievement measures,” said Ann K. Lupo, an assessment consultant to the state Education Department who teaches at Buffalo State College.

“The assessments are being debased if used in this fashion, contrary to their intent. The English language arts test is given in January, and the math test is in March — not at the end of the year, on purpose, to discourage using them as finals."...

Local school officials acknowledge that they’re using the state tests in a way that was never intended.

But by the time students reach eighth grade, the educators say, they’ve realized that there’s not much of a consequence for them if they get a low score on the state assessments. Generally, the worst that happens is that students with low scores are assigned extra help in whatever subjects they’re struggling with.

For schools, teachers and administrators, though, low scores can mean much more. If enough students do poorly on a test, a school can find itself on one of the state’s warning lists, a designation that can haunt a school for years.

Educators complain that the media have contributed to the situation by publishing scores released by the state Education Department and comparing schools, based on the percentage of students who pass each test.

“A lot of the fiddling around with how to use scores, and creating incentives for students to do well, is pure politics,” Lupo said. “Districts are very, very concerned not only about student performance, but how they will be perceived when the scores hit the paper.”...

“While giving them a break from not taking a final is a feel-good thing, I don’t know that it gets to the crux of the issue — how do I help you improve your knowledge base and your skills?” he said. “As a district, we don’t believe grades motivate students. We have to find other ways to motivate students.”

I don't believe that standardized tests are evil; however, I do think that their results can be used in unreasonable ways. For me, the the "unreasonable" part here is that the adults are admitting that they are using the carrot of a day off/no final as a way to boost public perception of the school via test scores. It's not about student learning at all. And we can pass the buck up the food chain---perhaps it's really the government's fault via NCLB, etc...but at the end of the day, the school administrators are making a choice that they don't have to make. I'm not willing to absolve them of using children.

Standardized tests should not be looked at as being all that (and a bag of chips), but I also think that school administrators are diminishing the usefulness of information for students and parents. If a student doesn't do well on the state assessment...then they get another test---where is the built in support and interventions? How does "Because you failed it the first time, we're going to let you fail it again." help families understand what is happening in terms of learning?

This kind of testing is not going to go away. I will not be surprised if NCLB is renamed (and retooled), but standardized tests are here to stay. We just need to find a way to repurpose them.


Roger Sweeny said...

"As a district, we don’t believe grades motivate students," said Ann K. Lupo, an assessment consultant to the state Education Department who teaches at Buffalo State College.

As a person, I don't believe gravity exists. Now I'm going to jump off this ten story building.


Anonymous said...

I hate the emphasis that is put on the testing. I hate that my administrator will only allow us to teach reading and math from February to the test in April. No science, no social studies, in 6th grade is so incredibly boring for me and for my kids. It is exhausting trying to spice it all up and make it engaging.

hschinske said...

If that kind of carrot actually works, it probably means there were previously a lot of students who were perfectly able, but not taking the test seriously, which seems to me like an entirely different problem.