Thursday, July 21, 2011

Low Stakes Testing

Dana Goldstein had an interesting post a couple weeks ago (I move at a slower pace than the rest of the world) in The Nation’s group blog. (I recommend reading it.) The post is about standardized testing for preschoolers:
With new evidence of standardized test score-inflation and straightforward adult cheating on K-12 tests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and across the country, you’d think it would be exactly the wrong time for the Obama administration to commit $500 million to developing additional state tests for a totally new population of children: pre-schoolers.
But Dana says she’s “cautiously enthusiastic” about the new focus on preschool testing, because
...the model the administration has in mind for pre-school assessment is low-stakes for individual teachers and students and measures not only academic performance but also children’s social, emotional, physical and artistic readiness for kindergarten.

Maryland has perhaps the most advanced pre-K assessment tool in the country, and one the Department of Education is pointing to as an example. The state’s “Model for School Readiness” requires incoming kindergarteners to be assessed in seven “domains of learning”: language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, physical development and social and personal development. Teachers perform the assessment by looking at a child’s drawings and writing, watching the child attempt to identify letters and numbers, and observing the child playing and interacting with both peers and adults.

The purpose of the system is to improve instruction for kids, not to reward or punish individual educators. “Kindergarten teachers use the findings to inform classroom instruction, provide appropriate support for individual students, and promote better communication with parents about children’s abilities,” Maryland reports. “Local school systems use the findings to guide professional development opportunities for teachers, inform strategic planning, target resources, and successfully help children make the transition from early childhood to school.”
I’m reminded of last week’s debate in the “Sunday Dialogue” section of the Times, between Diane Ravitch and several well-informed readers (most of them were education historians and the like), who weighed in via letters to the editor. Ravitch’s position, which she stated in the op-ed that started the whole debate, and has stated previously in other venues, is that testing is good, but “high-stakes” testing (i.e. testing whose results are attached to teacher bonuses and firings) is bad. I’ve spoken to at least one reader who wondered what Ms. Ravitch wants us to do with the test data, if not hold teachers and principals accountable for the results. Well, here’s your answer, in action.

The thing to notice about the Maryland system is that it’s oriented not towards competition but towards collaboration. The influence of economic logic and business-world strategies on education is strong right now, and these viewpoints bring with them a conception of motivation that is based almost exclusively on incentives and competition. I don’t think economic incentives and competition have ever been significant or effective motivators for teachers and principals—and, though they can work for students, they are not the only and probably not the most effective forms of student motivation. More on this line of inquiry in future posts.

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