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JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s a novel idea. A very well educated school board member in Orange County, Florida, took his state’s mandatory assessment test, which tests reading, math, science and writing, and he did very poorly. So, he wonders, how valid are those tests, really?

The board member, Rick Roach, is no dummy. He has two master’s degrees in education and educational psychology, and he’s working on a doctorate. He’s trained 18,000 teachers in 25 states, and served on his school board for four terms.

But his reading score on a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was 62%, which would have sent him to remediation classes. On the math part, he guessed on all 60 questions, getting only 10 right.

In an email to education critic Marion Brady, Roach wrote:

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

Roach went on to note how his life would have much different had he been required to take the FCAT in high school, and done as poorly as he did now.

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions?

He makes a valid point which should bring up school “reformers” up short, but probably won’t. While reformers bemoan the supposed lack of “teacher accountability,” do they also hold accountable the makers of the tests they buy to measure teacher and student performance? If even one well educated adult fails a test for 10th graders, something is very wrong. Scientifically speaking, if our theory is that standardized tests accurately measure student performance, just one negative result would invalidate the theory. At the very least, Roach’s test results should either call into question his qualifications as an educator or the validity of the FCAT.

Chances are, neither question will be raised. Roach is clearly well qualified. No argument there. But school assessment tests are the latest fad in education “reform” — a form of quality control for a corporate mindset that treats schools like factories, teachers like assembly line workers and students like widgets. Too many politicians, big names in education (Michelle Rhee?) and test makers have invested a lot of time and money to give up their pet assessment exams because one board member flunked an exam.

But Americans need to get off the testing bandwagon long enough to evaluate the tests being used. Students should not be pigeon-holed, nor teachers be punished, on the basis of only fill-in-the-oval examinations. Most colleges in the USA no longer use only the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions, after all. They use other measures of student quality, too.

China could serve as a model of what not to do. Standardized tests are the be-all, end-all of a person’s education here. The dreaded gaokao — the college entrance exam — is the ultimate hurdle for every high school student here. Graduation is merely icing on the cake. A student’s score on the gaokao determines his or her future for the next four years, and probably beyond. Unlike American colleges, Chinese colleges only consider a student’s gaokao score. If you’re even a few points below the cutoff for the school, tough luck, kid.

It’s draconian, to say the least. And there’s no way out. I’ve had several students here who are bright, well spoken (in Chinese and English), thoughtful and diligent, but their gaokao scores banished them to this third-tier university. Future employers will give preference to graduates of first- and second-tier schools, perhaps disregarding other qualifications, because it’s efficient. With a huge population, bosses have to find some way to whittle down the applicant pool to a halfway manageable level.

The Chinese system invites cheating and fraud, because the gaokao, and the many other required examinations, carry so much baggage. The allegations of fraud in the Washington, DC, testing system while Rhee was superintendent only hint at what could happen in the US if people take the whole testing system too seriously.

I have seen what damage standardized tests can do to Chinese students (including suicide). America doesn’t need to go in the same direction.
The links above about Roach and Brady take you to The Washington Post. Brady has the original commentary at his own blog, www.marionbrady.com.
The link for the Teflon-coated Michelle Rhee is to a scathing critique of Rhee by Diane Ravitch, a fairly conservative but very thoughtful education expert.