Why the Purposes of Testing Matter

  • 03 August, 2009

Rose Birkhead made a comment on my last post. She liked the idea of the states aiming at the same standards and giving the same reading tests, but she was concerned about testing kids on grade level. Say, I'm a teacher, and one of my students reads horribly, not even close to fourth-grade level. Rose's concern is that having that child take the fourth-grade test will tell me nothing of value about his reading (I won't get any useful insights about how to help him), and what it tells him he probably doesn't want to hear since he already knows he is struggling.

  Last week, I was meeting with a group of school administrators with great expertise in the needs of English Language Learners. They thought testing and the use of data to be very important, but they were chagrined about state laws that required them to test kids in English. Their reasoning was pretty much the same as Rose's: since these kids don't know English yet, and we have been teaching them to read in Spanish, an English test won't tell us anything that will help us to deliver better reading programs, and such testing is only going to make these kids feel bad.

  Rose and my ELL colleagues are not crazy, but I hope they don't get what they want. The problem is that accountability tests have very different purposes than other kinds of educational measures. Teachers and adminstrators want insights about how to teach particular kids more effectively, but accountability tests can't help there. Such tests will tell you who can't read this well, but not why.

  Tests that will help diagnose kids' instructional needs aren't very good at doing the accountability work. My colleagues are right: there are times that I'd rather concede that my students won't yet do well on an English test, and give them the Spanish test that will help me to figure out what to do next. Rose is right that it can be useful to test kids out of level in some instances, but accountability wouldn't be the purpose:. Jimmy reads very well for a second grader, unfortunately he is in ninth. Obviously that kind of information will mislead everyone as to how well a school is doing.

  During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama, kept saying he was going to replace accountability tests with diagnostic tests, and I kept thinking, not a chance. Diagnostic testing takes awhile; I hope we can keep accountability brief, and then do whatever is necessary to figure out the teaching needs of those kids who are lagging behind. I hope that we get back to the idea that, for accountability purposes, we don't really need to test everyone. If I want to know how well kids in Montana read, or how well immigrant kids are doing in school, I can test random samples of such kids and get the information that I need. Which means less testing time and less time away from teaching.

  But what about how testing someone on a test that is clearly too hard or inappropriate? Won't that make them feel terrible? Motivation does matter, and frankly there is no reason to test a child in a case like that--as long as the teacher of the school will concede that the child does not meet the standards. Unfortunately, schools that want to opt some kids out of accountability, don't want them to count at all (a process we have seen in the National Assessment). That won't work (I remember a year when they allowed that in Detroit and something like 92% of kids met standards).

  No matter how concerned for the kids a teacher or principal might be, they have had a tendency to either keep low kids out of the testing pool altogether, so that the community cannot know the real percentage of low readers in a school or district. Or, if the data are going to count whether the child is tested or not, these same caring individuals tend to administer the test (hoping those kids do better than expected). We need to make it easier for a school to say, "Henry is a poor reader. There is no reason to test him on the fifth-grade test to prove that since we know that he cannot read that well. Our school district concedes that Henry is a poor reader, we'll take the adjustment to our scores, and Henry will not be subjected to this."

  Ain't gong to happen? Maybe not, but if last fall you had told me that 46 states would sign on to joint standards, I would have said you were crazy.


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Rose Birkhead Jul 02, 2017 01:11 AM


Thank you for responding in so much detail to my comment. There is a world of difference between accountability and diagnostic tests. I really like your idea of randomly choosing students to test, and wonder if that could ever become a reality.

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Why the Purposes of Testing Matter


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.