Why Are Standardized Tests So Boring?: A Sensitive Subject

Why Are Standardized Tests So Boring?: A Sensitive Subject

It is a guiding principle in test development that stimulus materials and test questions should not upset test-takers. Much like dinner conversation with in-laws, tests should refrain from referencing religion, or sex, or race, or politics—anything that might provoke a heightened emotional response that could interfere with test-takers’ ability to give their best effort.

Attention to “sensitivity” concerns, as they’re known, makes sense conceptually. But in practice, as they shape actual test development, sensitivity concerns are responsible for much of why conventional standardized tests are so ridiculously bland and unengaging. The drive to avoid potentially sensitive content constrains test developers to such a degree that one might legitimately question whether the cure is at least as bad as the disease.

So determined are test-makers to avoid triggering unwanted test-taker emotions, they end up compromising the validity of their tests by excluding essential educational content and restricting students’ opportunities to demonstrate the creative and critical thinking skills they’re actually capable of. In other words, ironically, conventional standardized tests may be so radically boring that they’re no better at measuring actual ability and achievement than if they regularly froze test-takers solid with depictions of graphic horror.

Actually, no one knows for certain if the tests are better or worse for being so cautious. There is no research defining sensitivity, no evidence-based catalog of topics to avoid, no study measuring the test-taking effects of “sensitive” content. For all anyone knows, inflaming emotions might actually improve test results—though few test-makers would risk experimenting to find out.

No test-maker wants to hear from a teacher or parent that a student was stunned, enraged, offended, or even mildly disconcerted by content they encountered on a test. And in fairness, no test-maker wants to subject a test-taking kid to a hurtful or upsetting experience. They’re captives, after all; if something on the test makes them feel crappy, they have little choice but to sit there and absorb it. Their scores may or may not reflect the fact that their emotions were triggered: there’s really no way to tell.

On the other hand, high-stakes standardized tests, in and of themselves, trigger lots of negative emotions in plenty of kids, regardless of question content. So a cynic might wonder how much sensitivity concerns are driven by concern for kids’ experience, and how much by fear of the PR nightmares that would ensue from a question or passage that someone could claim was racially or religiously offensive. Whatever the case, the result is the same: keep it safe by keeping it bland.

Since there is no research to guide decisions on sensitivity, the rules test-makers set for themselves are based strictly on their own judgment, and on some sense of industry practice. Inevitably they default to the most conservative positions possible: if a topic might conceivably be construed as sensitive, that’s enough reason to keep it off the test.

Typically, sensitivity guidelines steer test developers away from content focused on age, disability, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Test-makers also avoid subjects they deem inherently combustible, such as drugs and drinking, death and disease, religion and the occult, sexuality, current politics, race relations, and violence.

A “bias review” process gets applied in the course of developing passages and questions for testing, to weed out anything that might be offensive or unfair to certain subgroups—typically African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Women, sometimes Native Americans. The test-maker will send prospective test materials out for review by qualified educators who belong to these subgroups. If a reviewer thinks a test item is problematic, it gets tossed. Though this process is better than nothing, it reflects more butt-covering than enlightenment, putting test-maker and reviewer alike in the awkward position of saying, for instance, “These test items are not unfair to Black people. How do we know? We had a Black person look at them!”

Judgments on topics not pertaining to identity and cultural difference rest purely on the test makers, who, as mentioned, are as risk-averse as can be. In one example I’m familiar with, a passage about the mythological Greek figure Eurydice was rejected because the story deals with death and the underworld. Think of all the literature and art excluded from testing on that kind of criteria. Think of the impoverished portrait of human achievement and lived experience conveyed to students by such an exclusion.

In another case, a passage on ants was rejected because it reported that males get booted out of the colony and die shortly after mating. I’m still not clear on whether the basis for that judgment centered on the reference to insects mating, insects dying, or the prospect of a student projecting insect gender relations onto human relations and being thereby too disturbed to think clearly. Whatever the case, rejecting such a passage on the basis of sensitivity concerns seems downright anti-science.

As does the elimination of references to hurricanes and floods because some kids might have experienced them. I remember a wonderful literary passage that depicted a kid watching his family’s possessions float around the basement when their neighborhood flooded. It was intended for high schoolers. It got the noose.

I’ve seen a pair of passages from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois nixed out of concern for racial sensitivity: you can’t have African Americans arguing with each other on questions of race. Test-makers strive to include people of color in their test content to satisfy requirements for cultural inclusivity. But those people of color cannot be engaged in the experience of being people of color —which renders the whole impulse toward inclusivity hollow and cynical. Such an over-abundance of caution does more to protect the test-maker than the student.

The content validity of educational assessments that cannot reference slavery, evolution, extreme weather events, natural life cycles, economic inequality, illness, and other such potentially sensitive topics should come under serious interrogation. More concerning still is the prospect of such tests driving curriculum. With school funding and teacher accountability riding on standardized test scores, teaching to the test makes irresistibly practical sense in many educational contexts. Thus, if the tests avoid great swaths of history, science, and literature, then so will curriculum.

The makers of the standardized tests schoolkids encounter argue that they are not interested in censoring educational content, only in recognizing that when students encounter potentially sensitive topics they need the presence of an adult to guide them through. The classroom and the dinner table are places for negotiating challenging subjects, not the testing environment, where kids are under pressure and on their own.

This rationale should rouse everyone to question why we continue to tolerate such artificial conditions for evaluating student learning. It essentially concedes that testing doesn’t align with curriculum, that kids will not be assessed on the things they’re taught—only on the things test-makers decide are safe enough to put in front of them. Further, it admits that test-makers compromise the content validity of their tests in deference to the highly contrived testing conditions they require. Surely we can recognize in this the severe design flaws that lie at the heart of the testing problem.

Obviously, insulting or traumatizing students with test content is something to be avoided. But at the same time, studies show that test-taker engagement is essential for eliciting the kinds of performances that accurately reflect students’ capabilities. When tasks lack relevance and authenticity they work against students’ ability to demonstrate their best work, especially students from underserved populations. Consider this statement:

Engagement is strongly related to student performance on assessment tasks, especially for students who have been typically less advantaged in school settings (e.g. English Language Learners, students of historically marginalized backgrounds) (Arbuthnot, 2011; Darling-Hammond et al., 2008; Walkington, 2013). In the traditional assessment paradigm, however, engagement has not been a goal of testing, and concerns about equity have focused on issues of bias and accessibility. A common tactic to avoid bias has been to create highly decontextualized items. Unfortunately, this has come at the cost of decreasing students’ opportunities to create meaning in the task as well as their motivation to cognitively invest in the task, thereby undermining students’ opportunities to adequately demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

In my own experience interviewing high schoolers about writing prompts, they want to write about Mexican rappers, violence in videogames, representations of gender and race in popular culture, football concussions, gun ownership, the double-standard dress codes schools impose on girls compared with boys, and other topics that are both authentic and relevant to them. Conventional standardized tests would not come near topics like these.

Any solution to this problem has to entail breaking away from the dominant, procrustean model of standardized test-taking, which isolates individual students from all resources and people, asks them to think and write on topics they may never have encountered before and care nothing about, and confines them to a timeframe that reflects the practical considerations of the test-maker, not the nature of authentic intellectual work.

Once free of the absurdly contrived conditions of conventional test-taking, sensitivity concerns can be removed from the domain of test-makers worried about their own liability. Instead, along with their teachers and guardians, students can decide what topics are appropriate to grapple with in their academic work. In fact, learning to choose, scope, and frame a topic in ways appropriate for an academic project is itself an essential skill, worthy of teaching and assessing.

WORKS CITED
Arbuthnot, K. (2011). Filling in the blanks: Understanding standardized testing and the Black-White achievement gap. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Darling-Hammond, L., Barron, B., Pearson, P. D., Schoenfeld, A. H., Stage, E. K., Zimmerman, T. D., … & Tilson, J. L. (2015). Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. John Wiley & Sons.

Walkington, C. A. (2013). Using adaptive learning technologies to personalize instruction to student interests: The impact of relevant contexts on performance and learning outcomes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(4), 932.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was featured as a guest post on CURMUDGUCATION.)

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Is the ACT a Valid Test? (Spoiler Alert: No.)

Is the ACT a Valid Test? (Spoiler Alert: No.)

ACT, Inc. released the results of its 2016 National Curriculum Survey earlier this year. The Survey goes out every three or four years to elementary, middle school, high school, and college teachers, as well as to workforce professionals. It collects information about what respondents are teaching, how they teach it, what they care about, and so forth. It serves as the basis upon which ACT builds its tests.

Because the Survey provides a look into both what pre-college students are being taught, and what they need to know to be prepared for college, it is a useful tool for examining the serious and persistent problem of college readiness—why it is that the majority of high school graduates are underprepared for college-level academic work. ACT itself reports that 72% of its test-takers fall short of at least one of its college-readiness benchmarks, which confirms the widespread underpreparedness reported by other sources. And indeed, ACT’s National Curriculum Survey reveals wide disjunctures between high school teaching and college expectations, which may have something to do with why students aren’t better prepared.

But ironically, by pointing out these disjunctures, the Survey raises questions about the validity of the ACT exam itself. The ACT is a test that straddles the space between high school and college, claiming to be both reflective of high school curricula and a measure of college readiness. But if ACT’s own Survey reveals that high school curricula do not align with college expectations, how can the ACT validly claim to measure both?

Tests are all about validity. Their value and utility depend upon them actually measuring what they purport to measure. If a test does not actually assess what it purports to, then it’s not a valid test, and any inferences made based on its results are faulty—inferences such as “this kid has been taught the skills needed for college success but hasn’t learned them very well.”

The two claims ACT, Inc. makes about the ACT test are at odds with each other, which calls into question the test’s validity. The claim that the test is “curriculum based” rests on Survey results, which ACT says serve as empirical evidence upon which it decides how to build the test. In this way, according to ACT, the test reflects what is being taught in high schools—an important claim, since testing kids on things they haven’t been taught doesn’t tell anyone much about their abilities.

ACT also, of course, claims that the test is a measure of college readiness. Through the Survey, it gathers an understanding of what college instructors expect from entering students. This understanding is reflected in ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, a set of “descriptions of the essential skills and knowledge students need to become ready for college and career.”

According to ACT, the Standards are validated by the Survey in a process that “ensures that our assessments always measure not only what is being taught in schools around the country, but also what demonstrably matters most for college and career readiness.”

But can the ACT test both what is taught in high school and what is expected in college if those two things don’t square up, as is suggested by their National Curriculum Survey and other research?

Perhaps there’s a significant degree of overlap. Perhaps ACT can identify and test students on those things that fall into both the learned-it-in-high-school category and the better-know-it-for-college category. ACT says indeed there is overlap, and that they have a way of figuring out what’s in it.

How do they do it? According to a 2015 white paper, “ACT first identifies what postsecondary faculty, including instructors of entry-level college and workforce training courses, expect of their entering students—that is, the knowledge and skills students need to be ready for entry-level postsecondary courses and jobs. ACT then compares these expectations to what is really happening in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. ACT uses the results of these comparisons to determine the skills and knowledge that should be measured on ACT assessments and to guide its test blueprints.”

The company does not explain how this process of comparison works, but it implies that they identify a subset of knowledge and skills that fall into both camps, then simply test kids on that.

To feel confident in this process, we would need to be certain that the subset is sufficient in size and scope to support the dual claims. That is, we would need to know what lies outside the overlap slice, as well as what lies within. What is being taught in high school that does not appear on the test because it is not a college-ready expectation? Likewise, what college-ready expectations do not appear on the test because they are not being taught in high school?

Once we knew those things, then we could validate the ACT by answering this question: Is the overlap slice sufficient to support both the claim that the test measures what is being taught in high school and the claim that it measures college readiness?

In other words, is there enough of the high school curriculum on the test to justify calling it a valid measure of high school achievement? And are there, at the same time, enough college expectations on the test to justify calling it a valid measure of college readiness?

ACT doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. As far as the ACT is concerned, if you demonstrate proficiency on the test, then ipso facto you’ve both mastered your high school curriculum and are ready for college, because the claims they make for the test require that the two constructs be identical.

What if you don’t do so well on the test? Is it because you haven’t learned well enough what you’ve been taught? Or because you haven’t been taught what you’re being tested on?

The ACT simply doesn’t allow for the second possibility.

In point of fact, if high schools were teaching certain essential college-ready skills – how to revise your work in response to feedback, for example—a conventional standardized test like the ACT would never be able to detect it, because it cannot provide for test-takers opportunities to do the kind of authentic, extended, or collaborative intellectual work that will be required of them in college.

But alas, as mentioned already, plenty of research demonstrates that there is a significant difference between high school learning and college expectations, suggesting that any overlap might not be very robust.  According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”

ACT’s own research confirms this. Two things jump out from the National Curriculum Survey results. First, as we can see from the table below, in many cases the Survey does not ask high school teachers and college instructors the same questions, so there is not much opportunity for determining where high school teaching lines up, or not, with college expectations. The Survey doesn’t look like a very good tool for comparing high school teaching to college expectations in Writing, for example.

The second thing is, where the Survey does provide opportunities for comparing high school with college, it finds that high school teaching does not align with college expectations. The Survey report points out, for example, that high school Writing teachers and college instructors are not emphasizing the same skills. Further, high school math teachers do not agree with college math instructors about what skills are important for success in STEM courses. Less than half of high school teachers believe that the Common Core math standards (which ACT stresses are in line with its own College Readiness Standards) match college instructors’ expectations for college readiness.

In other words, ACT’s own Survey shows that, to a significant extent, the knowledge and skills high school teachers are teaching are not the knowledge and skills college instructors are expecting of entering students.

Hence the college-readiness gap.

But if those two bodies of knowledge and skills aren’t the same, how can ACT support the claim that its test measures both what students actually learn and what ACT says they should learn for college readiness? The test doesn’t distinguish a “high-school-learning” part from a “college-requirements” part. As far as the test is concerned, it’s all the same.

In fact, ACT can’t really support both claims at the same time. But they make them anyway because they want to sell the test to two distinct markets. They want to sell it to students who are trying to get into college, so they call it a college-readiness test. And they want to sell it to states and districts for accountability purposes. These entities want to know whether their students are learning what they’re being taught; thus ACT calls the test curriculum-based.

But, we might wonder, don’t standards take care of all this? Standards, after all, both reflect the skills needed for college readiness and guide high school curriculum, right? Therefore, if the test aligns with the standards, then it’s both curriculum-based and a college-readiness indicator, because those are the same thing.

Most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Those that haven’t have concocted their own state standards, which are pretty much in line with the CCSS. In addition, ACT has its own College and Career Readiness Standards, which, it says, line up with both the CCSS and any non-CCSS state standards you care to throw at it. (As ACT says, “If a state’s standards represent the knowledge and skills that prepare students for college and career, then ACT Aspire and the ACT measure that knowledge and those skills”—a statement that manages to be both a non sequitur and a tautology.)

Again, however, ACT’s own research shows that neither high school teachers nor college instructors are much convinced that the CCSS reflect college-level expectations anyway. Asked by the Survey, “To what extent do you feel that the Common Core State Standards are aligned with college instructors’ expectations regarding college readiness,” the majority of both high school and college teachers responded little or slightly, rather than a great deal or completely.

In other words, according to its own data, ACT shouldn’t really get away with equating standards-based “curriculum achievement” with “college readiness.”

So what’s the cost of the ACT’s tricky claim-game? The cost is that we get farther away from understanding and addressing the college-readiness gap, so long as everyone believes that the ACT is really measuring what it says it does.

Wherever high school curricula lack significant overlap with the skills and knowledge ACT identifies as necessary for college-readiness, the test measures not what students have learned but what they haven’t been taught. This, then, contrary to ACT’s claims, is not an indicator of student readiness or achievement, but a measure of the distance between high school teaching and college expectations (or at least those ACT identifies and can test for).

But this is not how the interpretation of test results falls out for either student or state customers. Rather, the inescapable inference for both is that the majority of students have been taught what they need to know but simply haven’t learned it well enough—student’s fault, or teacher’s fault, but not the test’s fault for leading everyone to a lousy inference.

The faulty inference that issues from the ACT doesn’t help matters where students’ future opportunities are at stake; prospective colleges have no way of knowing that a kid was tested on things she was never actually taught. And it doesn’t help where states are trying to figure out how to improve their education systems. Rather, it makes matters worse by misdirecting both states and students away from the problem of how better to connect high school learning to necessary college skills, and toward the problem of how to get kids to score better on the test.

We do indeed want an education system in which high school curricula are focused securely on the skills and knowledge we confidently know are needed for success upon entry into college.  Demonstrably, that’s not what we have now, so we don’t need a test that falsely suggests otherwise.

© 2016 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

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