Calculators were allowed on some of the tests, and not all standards were tested. There also is the matter of the cut scores. (Cut scores are the level at which a grade on the test is a passing grade.) On the math HSPE, students needed less than 60% to pass, but what does that mean? It's hard to say. Some of the questions tested students at a level of "proficiency," and some tested students at a "basic level." Students could pass at a "basic" level while failing to answer all questions that didn't test at that level. A student's grade, therefore, isn't a straight grade. No one can say what a grade means in terms of actual knowledge. What's the point of issuing grades no one can understand? The point should be to engage in accountability and transparency, and to help the children.
There is another problem, however. Guest Marda Kirkwood, from CURE (Citizens United for Responsible Education), argues that Washington's "standardized tests" aren't standardized at all.]
Lies, damn lies and the myth of “standardized” tests
By Marda Kirkwood
So here I go, taking on the monumental task of undoing a lie that is repeated so often in the media, by elected officials (who should know better), and educrats (who, I am convinced, do know better) that it has come to be generally accepted as fact.
Here is the lie: The High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE), the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP), and their precursor, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) are “standardized” tests.
What, logically, are the characteristics that would allow us to legitimately label a test as “standardized”? It doesn’t take much thought to come up with a few guidelines.
A “standardized” test must:
- Be completely objective. There can be no judgment involved in determining whether an answer is right or wrong.
- Have specific time constraints. We all remember, “Time is up! Put your pencils down now.”
- Receive the same score no matter when, how, or by whom it is scored. It should not matter if it is a Monday or a Friday, or if test scorers are having a good or a bad day.
- Ask all students of the same grade standardized questions, every year.
- Reliably measure what academic knowledge the student knows.
- Serve as an accurate guideline for teachers, principals, school board members, parents, and others to evaluate the quality of curricula and instruction.
- Be “valid and reliable”. These are terms that are roughly analogous to accuracy and precision in target shooting. Valid means they accurately measure what they are intended to measure. Reliable means they are consistently valid (produce the same score). And just because some government official or entity declares a test “valid and reliable” does not make it so.
- Be norm-referenced. That means the scores have been compared, via a bell-curve, with the scores of other students across the nation who also took the same test. The comparison score is shown as a percentile. A student who receives a 70th percentile score performed better than 70% of the other students in the nation who took the same test.
- It includes essay or short answer, which have to be subjectively hand-scored and require a fallible human to use judgment to determine a score. Repeat after me, “subjective.”
- It has lots of variation in test questions from year to year, changing types and difficulty levels.
- Students are allowed to take however long they feel like to complete the test.
- A committee votes on a “cut score” (i.e. what level is “passing”) after the tests have been scored.
The EALRs are a moving target, able to be changed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), without the consent of the Legislature, as Terry Bergeson did when she was SPI. We have to assume they measure the EALRs because that is what federal law requires under No Child Left Behind. But the results are meaningless when they can be so easily manipulated by the choice of questions, the choice of cut scores, and the directions to the scorers.
Marda Kirkwood is active with Citizens United for Responsible Education, the founding chair of CURE, and an advisor to the current board. She has a degree in chemical engineering (with honors) and worked in the field for five years before retiring to be a stay-at-home mom. She homeschooled her children for eight years. This article originally was published Aug. 7, 2011, on the CURE Web site. For permissions for this article, please contact Marda at Marda@curewashington.org
From Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.