About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, February 20, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: A Test Taker

I want to continue the discussion of cognition, and to do so through a series of portraits drawn from the writing I’ve done over the years.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. And, though not all the portraits will be of young people in school, I hope, as well, that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.

This first portrait comes from an adult literacy and developmental education program that I describe in Lives on the Boundary. The focus is on standardized testing, a close look at one test-taker. And though this woman is in her forties, I think there’s a lot here worth considering for all ages, especially in our current test-intensive culture.


When they entered the program, Ruby and Alice and Sally and all the rest were given several tests, one of which was a traditional reading inventory. The test had a section on comprehension—relatively brief passages followed by multiple-choice questions—and a series of sections that tested particular reading skills: vocabulary, syllabication, phonics, prefixes and roots. The level of the instrument was pretty sophisticated, and the skills it tested are the kind you develop in school: answering multiple-choice questions, working out syllable breaks, knowing Greek and Latin roots, all that.

What was interesting about this group of test takers was that—though a few were barely literate—many could read and write well enough to get along, and, in some cases, to help those in their communities who were less skilled. They could read, with fair comprehension, simple news articles, could pay bills, follow up on sales and coupons, deal with school forms for their kids, and help illiterate neighbors in their interactions with the government. Their skills were pretty low-level and limited profoundly the kinds of things they could read or write, but they lived and functioned amid print.

The sad thing is that we have few tests of such naturally occurring competence. The typical test focuses on components of reading ability tested in isolation (phonetic discrimination, for example) or on those skills that are school-oriented, like reading a passage on an unfamiliar topic unrelated to immediate needs: the mating habits of the dolphin, the Mayan pyramids. Students then answer questions on these sorts of passages by choosing one of four or five possible answers, some of which may be purposely misleading.

To nobody’s surprise, Ruby and her classmates performed miserably. The tasks of the classroom were as unfamiliar as could be. There is a good deal of criticism of these sorts of reading tests, but one thing that is clear is that they reveal how well people can perform certain kinds of school activities. The activities themselves may be of questionable value, but they are interwoven with instruction and assessment, and entrance to many jobs is determined by them. Because of their centrality, then, I wanted to get some sense of how the students went about taking the tests. What happened as they tried to meet the test’s demands? How was it that they failed?

My method was simple. I chose four students had each of them take sections of the test again, asking them questions as they did so, encouraging them to talk as they tried to figure out an item.

The first thing that emerged was the complete foreignness of the task. A sample item in the prefixes and roots section (called Word Parts) presented the word “unhappy,” and asked the test-taker to select one of four other words “which gives the meaning of the underlined part of the first word.” The choices were very, glad, sad, not. Though the teacher giving the test had read through the instructions with the class, many still could not understand, and if they chose an answer at all, most likely chose sad, a synonym for the whole word unhappy.

Nowhere in their daily reading are these students required to focus on parts of words in this way. The multiple-choice format is also unfamiliar—it is not part of the day-to-day literacy—so the task as well as the format is new, odd.

I explained the directions again—read them slowly, emphasized the same item—but still, three of the four students continued to fall into the test maker’s trap of choosing synonyms for the target word rather than zeroing in on the part of the word in question. Such behavior is common among those who fail in our schools, and it has led some commentators to posit the students like these are cognitively and linguistically deficient in some fundamental way: they process language differently, or reason differently from those who succeed in school, or the dialect they speak in some basic way interferes with their processing of Standard Written English.

Certainly in such a group—because of malnourishment, trauma, poor health care, environmental toxins—you’ll find people with neurolinguistic problems or with medical difficulties that can affect perception and concentration. And this group—ranging in age from nineteen to the mid-fifties—has a wide array of medical complications: diabetes, head injury, hypertension, asthma, retinal deterioration, and the unusual sleep disorder called narcolepsy. It would be naïve to deny the effect of all this on reading and writing.

But as you sit alongside these students and listen to them work through a task, it is not damage that most strikes you. Even when they’re misunderstanding the test and selecting wrong answers, their reasoning is not distorted and pathological. Here is Millie, whose test scores placed her close to the class average—and average here would be very low just about anywhere else.

Millie is given the word ““kilometer” and the following list of possible answers:

a. thousand
b. hundred
c. distance
d. speed

She responds to the whole word—kilometer—partially because she still does not understand how the test works, but also, I think, because the word is familiar to her. She offers speed as the correct answer because: “I see it on the signs when I be drivin’.” She starts to say something else, but stops abruptly. “Whoa, it don’t have to be ‘speed’—it could be ‘distance.’”

“It could be ‘distance,’ couldn’t it?” I say.

“Yes, it could be one or the other.”


“And then again,” she says reflectively, “it could be a number.”

Millie tapped her knowledge of the world—she had seen kilometer on road signs—to offer a quick response: speed. But she saw just as quickly that her knowledge could logically support another answer (distance), and, a few moments later, saw that what she knew could also support a third answer, one related to number. What she lacked was specific knowledge of the Greek prefix kilo, but she wasn’t short on reasoning ability. In fact, reading tests like the one Millie took are constructed in such a way as to trick you into relying on commonsense reasoning and world knowledge—and thereby choosing a wrong answer. Take, for example, this item:

a. heart
b. abnormal
c. distance
d. record

Millie, and many others in the class, chose heart. To sidestep that answer, you need to know something about the use of gram in other words (versus its use as a metric weight), but you need to know, as well, how these tests work.

After Millie completed five or six items, I have her go back over them, talking through her answers with her. One item that had originally given her trouble was “extraordinary”: a) “beyond”; b) “acute”; c) “regular”; d) “imagined.” She had been a little rattled when answering this one. While reading the four possible answers, she stumbled on “imagined”: “I…im…”; then, tentatively, “imaged”; a pause again, then “imagine,” and, quickly, “I don’t know that word.”

I pronounce it.

She looks up at me, a little disgusted, “I said it, didn’t I?”

“You did say it.”

“I was scared of it.”

Her first time through, Millie had chosen regular, the wrong answer—apparently locking onto ordinary rather than the underlined prefix extra—doing just the opposite of what she was supposed to do. It was telling, I thought, that Millie and two or three others talked about words scaring them.

When we come back to “extraordinary” during our review, I decide on a strategy. “Let’s try something,” I say. “These tests are set up to trick you, so let’s try a trick ourselves.” I take a pencil and do something the publishers of the test tell you not to do: I mark up the test booklet. I slowly began to circle the prefix extra, saying, “This is the part of the word we’re concerned with, right?” As soon as I finish she smiles and says “beyond,” the right answer.

“Did you see what happened there?  As soon as I circled the part of the word, you saw what it meant.”

“I see it,” she says. “I don’t be thinking about what I’m doing.”

I tell her to try what I did, to circle the part of the word in question, to remember that trick, for with tests like this, we need a set of tricks of our own.

“You saw it yourself,” I say.

“Sure I did. It was right there in front of me—‘cause the rest of them don’t even go with ‘extra.’”

I am conducting this interview with Millie in between her classes, and our time is running out. I explain that we’ll pick this up again, and I turn away, checking the wall clock, reaching to turn off the tape recorder. Millie is still looking at the test booklet.

“What is this word right here?” she asks. She had gone ahead to the other, more difficult, page of the booklet and was pointing to “egocentric.”

“Let’s circle it,” I say. “What’s the word? Say it.”


“What’s that mean?”

“Ego. Oh my.” She scans the four options—self, head, mind, kind—and says “self.”


“You know, when I said ‘ego,’ I tried to put it in a sentence: ‘My ego,’ I say. That’s me.”

I ask her if she wants to look at one more. She goes back to “cardiogram,” which she gets right this time. Then to “thermometer,” which she also gets right. And “bifocal,” which she gets right without using her pencil to mark the prefix. 

Once Millie saw and understood what the test required of her, she could rely on her world knowledge to help her reason out some answers. Cognitive psychologists talk about task representation, the way a particular problem is depicted or reproduced in the mind. Something shifted in Mille’s concept of her task, and it had a powerful effect on her performance.


Anonymous said...

Man, that's beautiful. I mean everything, the drama of the test-takers, the overcoming, the help (just enough to get you over the crown of the hill), and the depiction of the interaction itself.

Simón, you know the idea of a some process (maybe not necessarily a test) that could give people--the person organizing the "process" as well as the person at the center of it--a picture of everyday intelligence/literacy or as Mike phrases it "naturally occurring competence"is fresh. Anything that frees people from illusions, anything that allows us to clean up all the "caca" that is is in our heads is a good thing. (Good in the philosophic sense of the "Good.")

I wish my jefita could see this, by "this" I mean her "naturally occurring competence." It ain't that she don't, but I think she has more frequent crises of belief in her competence than, say, us academics. (A crisis of that sort is a good thing for an academic. More academics should have more of those kinds of crises.)

I once got an award from my community college. "Distinguished Alumnus." My jefita wouldn't go to the ceremony. "Esos lugares no son para mi, soy una burra/Those place aren't for me, I'm a dummy." She could raise a Mexican son in this society, help get him through school, and yet she thinks "places like that" ain't for me. Crazy huh? That's what I mean by "caca" in our heads.

This latest blog post, for me, is an example of how to use writing and observation to fight with a cool head, all while your heart is burning like a furnace.


P. Hsu said...

I wonder how intelligence was perceived before the advent of standardized testing and IQ tests. Was intelligence even important in the 1800s, or was it more about ability? If "intelligence" wasn't important then, why do we place so much importance on it now, especially when it's not easily defined or measured? Is intelligence the modern way of stratifying society, when the physical aspect is less important than it used to be?

I feel this emphasis on testing is in some way related to the (over) importance that society, and to a certain extent educators, seem to place on college degrees and level of education. The purpose of education is becoming less about learning, and more for the sake of education itself as a way to separate the haves and have-nots. And the way standardized testing is conducted is very symptomatic of this problem. You passed this test--you good (smart). You failed this test--you bad (dumb). As a result, the purpose of education has shifted from developing people's minds to finding out who has the cultural capital to play the system. If we can broaden the definition of intelligence, as Mike suggests, and allow people to prove their abilities in different ways, then learning will once again be the purpose of education.

Emily King said...

I, like P. Hsu, find difficulty in understanding the immense importance put on standardized tests—what I feel is society’s way of judging who is intelligent or not. Today’s world for some reason, feels the need to label individuals based on their brainpower. And because of this, there is also a need to find a way to test this brainpower. Sadly, the current test is standardized multiple choice. But as Mike so clearly demonstrated, these tests are full of tricks and difficulties that cause so many people to fail and thus be labeled as unintelligent.

But can we be so obtuse as to buy into the results of a single test that only examines a person’s ability to find the correct answer among many presented for a single question? I hate to be the first person to bring this up, but: what about multiple intelligences? I truly believe that there are so many people in the world who, although they may not be able to identify the meaning of a prefix, are still incredibly intelligent in their astounding and substantial knowledge on a subject that I personally know nothing about. I would argue that the women in this example are incredibly smart especially in their ability to multitask through a mother’s everyday activities. This associates back to the debate between liberal studies education and trade schools. Is a person who chooses to attend a school for car mechanics and learn all of the mind-boggling intricacies of vehicles because that is what he enjoys, considered unintelligent if he fails to choose D in answering question number 62?

Results from these tests not only shape the view of others toward an individual, but also affect that person’s own view of themselves. Buying in to the belief that a standardized test truly proves intelligence, or lack there of, a person with a low score may begin to think of himself as dumb—brainless, or unable to learn anything at all. This, in turn, may affect his self-esteem and possibly his outlook on learning (thinking that he is stupid, he may withdraw himself from the prospect of furthering his education simply because he thinks that he is incapable.)

I understand the impossibility of creating a test with such a broad scope as to test any and all facets of an individual’s intelligence. But I can still dream.

Megan said...

One negative aspect of education is standardized testing. These stressful exams are designed to trick and confuse, and clearly, from Mike Rose's example, are created in an unfamiliar and intimidating format. When I look on my own education, I can recall numerous multiple choice tests, but I do not remember a single question or answer from them. What is our purpose of education? It should be to learn and grow as an individual, but like P.Hsu said in his blog, these tests are merely created to place importance and reputation for educators. Recently, I have taken a preliminary exam required by all students who wish to enter a California Credential program. It is known as the CBEST. Even with years of practice with standardized tests, I still felt anxious and intimidated as though I was playing some kind of mind game. The format of these test have not changed. They still consist of the same tricky multiple choice questions that Mille had to answer. However, my test was on a computer, which only adds another difficult aspect for those in Mike Rose's blog. My fear is that we are headed on this one-tract mind and are going nowhere near learning as human beings. Education testing needs to change.

William Thorn said...

As Mike has recognized, I believe that the lack of context and skill-sets are the most evident reasons as to why some are said to perform better than others within academia. Context, as it is said, is everything. Our cognitive development is wrapped within a framework of reasoning—anything that exists outside this framework is difficult to make sense of. By framing the outside world with a lens in which to view it, we are then able to receive sensory input, interpret the data, and produce a response.

Having revealed her test-taking experience, it is not surprising that Millie lacked the ability to accurately interpret the examination she was given. Millie, a more than competent person of reason, was confused by the questions because of how she was being asked to respond.

To use a metaphor, think of Millie as a ship at sea—she knows where she’s at—she’s at sea, or rather, she’s being asked to answer a question. And the test’s directions, much like a compass or a map, are meant to guide Millie to her destination. If Millie doesn’t know where she began however, the directions will make little sense—they’re out of context and of little use.

And Millie is far from being the only individual who has been misunderstood and mislabeled. To use the metaphor once more, there are many other ships at sea that require the guidance Mike provided...

This is where the responsibility of a teacher comes into play: contextualize and provide skill-sets that the learner can use when placed in a difficult position. Once Mike showed Millie how to read the horizon, Millie knew exactly where to sail.

The point of producing my metaphor is this: as a teacher, it should be one’s goal to provide students with skills that will allow them to reposition, reassess, and respond to difficult encounters. More than teaching one’s students factoidal information, higher learning should concentrate more on strategies—strategies are applicable in many scenarios, factoids are rarely transferrable.

Realistically, there is little chance that standardized testing will ever disappear from our public schools—Uncle Sam and the public will always feel the need to hold someone accountable. What we can change however is what we hold our students accountable for, and as a result, what we as teachers are held accountable for. Education should not be so narrowly concerned with being able to assign a numerical or alphabetical symbol that labels an individual; individuals are more than just a letter grade or number. What tests should focus on are skills—skills that promote cognitive development and understanding.

Jessica Hadid said...

This piece has major implications for Special Education students and English Language Learners but it also brings into question the system of education as a whole. We all have unique habits and mechanisms of mind; those whose are well aligned with the habits and mechanisms of the system do well, and those whose minds operate along a different bent often do poorly. If we step back to consider the system itself, if we pinpoint the specific faculties of the brain that are employed by this system, do we agree that these are the faculties that we most want to encourage in our society? Are they conducive to the better world we envision? When we attempt, out of the hope for convenience and efficiency, to streamline the system of education by paring it down to one species of thought production we undercut the very soul of that system, leaving a fill-in-the-blank, template of a structure that threatens to indoctrinate our youth with one-dimensional modes of thought. The complexity of our world’s problems call for so much more.

Jenna said...

When gauging the intelligence that a person has, I cannot think of a worse way than to implement a standardized test. These tests are only offered in Standard English, which immediately limits the success rate of ELL test takers, as well as test takers who do have Standard English as their first language, but not as their primary language. The barrier that these tests create straight out of the gate leads me to believe that whoever is creating these tests knows that failure is immanent for many, and wants these failures to happen.
These failures make it easy to point the finger at teachers and schools as the main reason why our students aren't succeeding, when the reality of the matter is that the low success-level of our students is a national problem, and is a problem that could be at least partially remedied if the United States took a more progressive and forward-thinking approach to how we implement tests (in standard English for ELL learners? How about a bi-lingual or tri-lingual test option?), and why we implement these tests (is this the best way to gauge how our students are doing academically? If so, then how can we make it better? If not (which is the reality), then what else can we do?).
We need to start asking questions and demanding changes as a nation. One or two voices may be heard, but many voices can entice change.

mudzimu said...

My father, 89 years old with a sixth grade education, went to the DMV this past week to renew his driver license (a whole other discussion!). He missed 8 questions, then 5, then 6. After the third try he decided he was ready to go home. On our drive home, I asked him which questions he missed and why. He seemed to think the test writer had written a more complicated test. He kept saying, "I read the question, I thought they must have meant..." When we talked about the other answer choices, he consistently chose the correct answers. I think he was trying to make sure they knew he was smart--he kept complicating the process (At one point, the examiner asked him if he wanted to listen to the questions being read to him. He was insulted--"She thinks I can't read.").
We went to the DMV two days later and he passed the test (only missing two).
I knew that his "failures" were not about intelligence but what did his mistakes tell me about what he knows, how he thinks, and his fitness for driving.
My mother, who is 86, recently took a memory test. She missed enough items that she would have appeared to be at-risk person EXCEPT I was there and I was able to tell the doctor that she's never been able to do mental math (she dropped out of school at fifth grade) and she refuses to tell "people in authority" if she didn't hear or understand what they've said.
So what does this say about me? Did I do this with my students--make excuses for them? Interpret their responses? Do I need to worry about the tests and the test takers equally?

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that we base the intellectual achievements of our students solely upon the measurement of a test. Once tested, students are often grouped and instructed according to the results. The tests are designed to determine a student’s competency in grade level subjects. Therefore, one infers a high score is a high performance. High performance is then equated with intellectualism. It is unbelievable how we give such high honor to these tests. As educators, we claim the test is only a portion of the picture we use to determine a student’s intellectual ability. If we are honest with ourselves and others, once we have seen a student’s test scores, opinions of their capacity to acquire knowledge begin to take shape. Those students with high scores are considered capable of higher forms of knowledge, while those with low scores have a much smaller possession of intelligence. It is illogical to maintain that intellectual ability can be determined from a test.

As Rose was able to provide, we must consider a student’s ability to reason beyond the ceiling of their test scores. As he looked outside the scores to how students take on the tests, a much clearer picture of ability appears. His results were extraordinary. Finding out how students try to cope with the test and what they do to figure out a test item, gives us a better view of what students need in order to be successful. Students need skills and strategies designed to complement their intellectualism.

Recently, I bought one of those in the box bookshelves. Opening the box, I laid out all the pieces and began. I decided I did not need the directions. I am a visual person. I could visibly see the picture on the box of what the shelves should look like. About half-way in to the thing, it was not going well. I had kept my eye on the product’s picture on the box, but could not seem to get it right. Finally, picking up the directions, I re-started following the steps. Yet my eye remained on the picture of the finished product. I likened my experience with the shelves to Millie’s experience with the test. Once she knew where she was headed and how to get there, her results changed.

I agree with Thorn’s comment that tests will never completely vanishing from our schools. It is hopeful their weight might diminish. Until that time, students will continue to “bubble in” proof of their abilities and students and teachers will be judged by the results. Rose discussed how many students are able to communicate effectively through the written word and brought up a great point, “The sad thing is that we have few tests of such naturally occurring competence.” If we continue to use testing to define student’s abilities, maybe the tests can be changed to reflect the natural way Rose spoke of. Using Rose’s portrayal of how students think and process information; we can change the situation for the better. As teachers, we can forgo cramming our student’s heads with rote information. This type of instruction is of no use when teachers are committed to building a student’s intellect. We can think “outside the bubble” by preparing students with contextual thought processes. Through continual instruction in this way, we can influence the effect of how students answer questions.

What we see as typical solely based on scoring, limits student’s possibilities. As educators, we can broaden our view of student’s intellectual ability. Once we begin to look beyond the answers to the tests to the thought processes that naturally occur while students answer questions, we will begin to see clearer the true picture of a student’s intellect. This portrait will enable us to better navigate students to success.

Anonymous said...

This entry epitomizes everything that educators despise about standardized testing. Standardized tests are not a true representation of what the student knows or can do because most of the time, the students are confused by the actual test. The same issues that arise in adult testing, like in the entry, I also see in my second grade classroom.

I can prove on a day to day basis that my children can meet the prescribed state standards for second grade. However, the state requires that students also be able to show it on a standardized test called the Criterion Referenced Compentency Test (CRCT). So, often children miss questions simply because they do not understand what the question is asking of them. It is impossible for a teacher to think of the fifteen or more different ways that a test could present a concept and make sure that the students are familiar with each possibility. Older children, with average to above average intelligence, may be able to easily transfer knowledge from a variety of different types of questions, but seven and eight year olds certainly cannot. Just as the entry mentioned, these tests often have "tricky" or misleading answer choices designed to steer the test taker in the wrong direction. Does that seem fair for a young child? As I gave the CRCT this year, I also overlooked the directions to not write in the test booklet. I taught my children to underline answers when they found them in reading passages, clue words that told them what to do in math word problems, and to mark out answers that they could automatically eliminate. By allowing students to do these helpful strategies, it made a world of difference in some of their answer choices. I would be more than willing to spend time erasing their marks, if it helped them choose the best answer.

Something not mentioned in the entry, but one of my biggest concerns about high stakes standardized testing is the lack of developmental appropriateness. Students in first and second grade are required to answer 60 reading questions from about 8 - 10 passages and 70 math questions in one sitting. I don't know of anyone who would believe that this was developmentally appropriate! The test could be decreased by half and the state could still assess every standard. The test doesn't need to include so many questions pertaining to one concept. If a child can show mastery of a standard in a couple of questions, isn't that enough?

Another issue that is so prevalent regarding standardized testing is the pressure felt by the individual classroom teachers. So often, there is a trickle down effect from the state level, to the county level, to school administrators, to the classroom teacher regarding student performance on these tests. I can't help but feel stressed out and frustrated when I know what my students are capable of on a daily basis in my classroom, but fail to show it on the test. It is also disheartening when a teacher knows that she is going to have less students pass because she has EIP (early intervention program) or Special Education students in her classroom. I have seen, first hand, schools congratulate teachers who had 100% passing on a standardized test, but do not make any consideration for classes with special needs children. In those classrooms, there is often lots of student progress and academic gains. However, due to the test format and appropriateness, those lower intelligence students do not perform as well.

I understand the reasons for requiring standardized testing because we are in such a data driven educational age. But, why not use more authentic data taken from the classroom on a day to day basis. I feel educators should be concerned with meeting children where they are, showing the progress they've made throughout the year, and having ongoing authentic assessment to monitor mastery and understanding.

Anonymous said...

One of the most upsetting aspects of this article and in our schools is that these are not real learning situations; these are not real assessments of what our students know. I think that some students excel on tests that are set up in a multiple choice manner. However, there are others who would do better with short answer, presentations, or essays. I think multiple choice questions are an easier way to assess, and that is why so many people, companies, schools, etc. use that format. But, I feel that this limits the assessors’ understanding of what the test taker truly knows by only giving the test taker pre-determined choices. And, as the article states, so often the choices are meant to trick the test taker; therefore, are those questions even fair?
This article also gives insight as to why so many teachers teach to the test. In the article, the test takers were unfamiliar to the tasks at hand, as so many of our students are today. Hence, teachers waste much valuable learning time teaching strategies for taking standardized test that have taken over our schools today. Teachers certainly do not want their students to feel like failures and they themselves to not want to appear as lousy because their test scores are not high; hence, teachers focus much of their time teaching these test-taking skills. As a teacher myself, I can say that I do spend time teaching to the test, but I detest it. It is a waste. However, if I did not in some way go over this, I feel that I would be cheating my students out of an opportunity to do well, much like Millie.
Furthermore, it is disheartening to know that students become overwhelmed with anxiety as they approach the day of taking such tests because so much pressure is placed on them to do well from their parents, teachers, and themselves, as they do not want to be labeled or seen as dumb. After getting the results from the tests, many are left broken-hearted because once again, some entity has proven to them that they are not intelligent.
The scores from standardized tests often place labels on students that follow them in many aspects of their school life. These scores often determine whether or not a student will be retained, whether a student can be placed in higher achieving classes or lower ability classes. Standardized tests affect people at every level, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. What a person scores on standardized tests determines so much of their life. There again, it does seem fair.
I think it is important for teachers to help students sail, as William Thorn mentioned in his post, but I think it is regrettable that we have to teach them to sail in such a restricted way, by standardized testing which is all too often out of context and unfamiliar for so many students. One thing is sure, however, in today’s educational society, students will probably no longer feel as if standardized tests are unfamiliar because of the wealth of states that are now mandated to give the tests frequently. Unlike Millie, students today will probably become well-rounded in their standardized test taking skills. Nevertheless, the passages and questions given will perhaps always be out of context and lack relevance to the test takers lives. Therefore, many will continue to be labeled as unintelligent due to such unfairness.
This article emphasizes the major reason educators despise standardized testing. In addition, Millie’s experience before getting help from the interviewer helps one understand the importance of teaching to the test, which educators also despise. Had Mille not have gotten help, however, a strategy, a technique for how to look at those questions, she would have perhaps continued to fail at this task. It is quite unfortunate that tests such as these determine so much in our schools and lives today.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post on many levels. I think that it is unfair to set students up to fail and to measure their weaknesses, which is often what standardized tests do. However, I think it is important to note what many of the tests are trying to measure. Most of the standardized tests that we give to individuals are not designed to measure intelligence they are designed to measure mastery. I agree that many of the tests are loaded with language and cultural bias and they are not designed well. Nor do they measure the skills that are necessary for success in someone’s environment. They are not intelligence tests, though. They are tests designed to measure whether or not our educational system has taught its students what a group of education officials and/or politicians feel that they need to know in order to be “educated.”
Most psychologists that are actually giving intelligence tests try to give tests that go beyond cultural and racial bias. They seek to give tests in another language if necessary and if someone is suspected of having limitations with their language skills give a nonverbal tests along with a tests that measures language in order to get a better idea of someone’s potential. Psychological testing is part art; part science and scores should not be used to categorize a person (not a belief that is shared by educational systems) but to provide a qualitative picture of someone’s strengths and weaknesses and to help create a plan that will assist them in being successful in schools. The above methods are those used by psychologists who seek to help clients through the use of standardized intelligence and processing tests. The fact that the education system has chosen to use tests to measure and place students in what they feel is their appropriate environment is really a misuse of the instruments.
I also find it ironic that so many students are set up to fail when forced to take standardized tests that are designed in such a way that they often measure their weaknesses. Teachers are often the victims of standardized tests as well. Their success as a teacher is determined by how well students do on a standardized test, not how much they learned over a year. I have seen instances where students are reading two grade levels above where they started at the beginning of the year at the end of the year. Yet, the teacher is not considered successful because the student is still not on grade level. I think we create a system with our standardized tests that give no incentive for a very good teacher to teach students that would be considered at risk. These are the very students that desperately need good teachers. Yet, many of the teachers that have shown their ability to work well with at risk students have “earned” the right to not have to do so. Their success gives them the opportunity to teach the “smart” students.
I think as a society we have to realize that smart does not equal successful at school. If that were the case we would not have such a high population of gifted students that drop out. We also need to do away with standardized testing; it does not do anyone any good. We also have to change the idea that smart is synonymous with middle to upper middle class Caucasian whose native language is English. That is what our current system of standardized testing to measure academic success appears to be built upon. I wish we could develop a system of monitoring the progress of students that celebrates our individual gifts and cultures. Perhaps one day this will be the case.

Tricia said...

It is upsetting and unfortunate that our youth are being judged and categorized according to their level of “proficiency” based on a standardized test. As seen in Mike Roses’ example, lots of these students know the information, they are just being tricked by the test. Isn’t the importance of this information and all of the information that teachers help their students’ acquire to be able to use it in context? Don’t we want our students to be able to use and recognize this information in their future everyday world? If so, then why are we testing them in a context that they haven’t and probably will never see again? Isn’t that defeating the purpose of why we send our students to school? It is disheartening to be entering a profession where teachers are told what to teach according to test levels, and where students are judged based on a test given in unfamiliar formats and terms. Why are tests no longer interested in content comprehension, rather than format and logistical errors? Just because students might be lacking in their comprehension of Standardized English, that does not mean that they are unintelligent or do not know the information. If we are testing them on their critical thinking and comprehension skills, I would think that they would offer the test in other languages–especially considering that there is no official language in the US. The ELL students have just as much a right to show their content and comprehension skills as any other student.

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