September 02, 2006

A Scary Story About Standardized Test Scores

Reading my son's IOWA Skills test scores from 2005 has been a bittersweet process. On one hand, I want to throw a party, and on the other, I want to weep for the nation. The fears by teachers that tests are being watered down, curriculum is being redefined by publishers, and that bell-curves are leaving poor students without resources in the bottom 50% are REALITIES today. Many teachers complain that lucrative test contracts that spend millions of dollars of our tax money could better be used to hire teachers, buy learning resources and improve our schools. Amidst the growing controversy over skills testing across America, I see the basic truth that test scores are completely relative.

With this in mind, I opened my son's test scores last week. He took the IOWA skills test back in the early part of April along with the rest of the state's public schooled children. Our scores came in this past week (the last week of August). It took the school district (and the testing company; let's be fair and blame them both...) almost a total of five months to get the results to us. If you are adding that up, it comes up to almost half of a year! Not only were they late in arrival, but there had been a mix-up and all of the homeschooled students in our state had been given scores that were incomplete because the testing facility had forgotten to add in the scores for Social Studies and Science the first time they were sent out. I hadn't received the "first set" of scores in that particular mail-out. They had gotten my address wrong and there's no telling where they sent my son's first set of test scores. I called to give them my address AGAIN when I found out from other homeschoolers that the publisher was sending out new scores. Whomever I spoke with at their office managed to leave off my apartment number, so I was relieved to finally get the scores this past week (someone in my apartment office had to hand-deliver it to my mailbox). At least THIS time the test made it to its proper destination.

The actual testing took three days out of our school year in April. Seeing as how my school year is not on a regular school year calendar, this made for a very inconvenient testing date. We started our school in September of last year, took over a month off in October and part of November because of our moving, and didn't finish school until the end of July 2006. We had about four weeks here and there of off-time in-between, but we were only in our early part of our second semester when the testing occurred. My son was not even finished with his materials for the year. I feared that he would be at a disadvantage because of this. I was glad to find out that he scored well, as you can imagine... yet I feel that if state governments require mandated testing of homeschoolers, they should take into consideration the fact that most homeschoolers are NOT following a strict "public school calendar". Testing should be done when ALL students are finished with the curriculum they have been assigned for each year.

Knowing that we wasted three days in April on this test, I am also aware that this can not compare with the months and months which I am certain were stolen from our local public school students and teachers who were forced to "teach for the test". Their schools are "graded" by their test results and money is dangled like carrots hung on a stick in front of school districts who are able to score the highest. In my view, this only sets a rigged trap that pays off with federal money. Consistently, the most affluent schools are taking the top funds and the poorer communities are punished. Awarding money to teachers and faculty in districts who score well is a blow to the teachers and faculty in poor scoring schools when in all actuality, they may have worked just as hard.

My son did not stop during the year to study for the test and did not practice with testing materials before hand. How do you suppose his scores were in the top two percent of the nation's third grade class if this is true? Why is it that the public school students who were drilled and filled with test facts all through the school year by their teachers (who are similarly drilled and filled with test procedure) scored on average between 10-40% lower than my son on individual subjects? This suggests that public school test procedures are NOT what they are cracked up to be.

I am no expert on test score readings, but my son's scores were in the high 90% National Percentile Rank across the board (with the exception of just a few individual items). His "Core Total" score was 99%, and his Composite (which I assume to mean the entire test including Core and Social Studies, Science, Maps and Reference) was 98%. Information on understanding the scores on his test results were not provided adequately. Of course, as any mother and teacher would be, I am thrilled that his scores were so high. However, it makes me scratch my head in wonder that he could score so high on a test that was designed for the scope and sequence of the public school's version of 3rd Grade... and I am NOT teaching to that scope or sequence at ALL.

The scope is the information which is covered, and the sequence is the order in which it is taught. I am teaching a larger scope than the public school, but a completely different sequence. Here's a snip from my curriculum side-manual, "The KONOS Compass" that speaks to this issue:

"You will see that within three volumes (K-8th Grade), KONOS covers what is normally taught. In other words, the scope is the same (although KONOS covers more), while the sequence may be different. The sequence or order in which certain subjects are taught is very arbitrary. Except for subjects (like math and language) which build upon previously learned skills, there is no necessary order for learning topics. For example, what does it matter if the topic of birds is learned before or after the topic of beavers? In fact, even within the state requirements, there is a diversity about when to teach the topics."
So, in essence, my son was able to score in the top two percent of American 3rd Graders (who took the Iowa) even though some of the material on the test may not have been taught at all to him at home. Not only that, but I was only a little more than 1/2 way finished with his 3rd Grade Math book (since we did school until July 31st). To me, this is a scary actuality... and leads me to believe that either I am a lot better teacher (without a teaching degree) than I had previously thought, or the public schools are dumbing down students and tests by teaching them for the test instead of teaching them for life.

Am I proud of my son? You bet I am. He's in the top two percent of American Third Graders today (according to the Iowa Skills Test). But while I am proud of my son, I also feel a little sorry for all the parents out there whose kids are forced to waste so much time on these tests. I'm sorry for the teachers as well. Most of us who have a heart for teaching really do love our students and do it because we WANT the kids to excel. Given BACK the months of test prep and millions in test prep funding, those same teachers and students could be really experiencing the joy of teaching and learning like we are. Instead, they will go on cramming information so they can crank out tests and then forget it all the minute they turn in their test booklets. What a sad system we have created to evaluate the beautiful process of learning. How uniform and bland shall be the students our current system turns out. There will be no celebration of talent. All of those students will be test-taking machines, void of any real excitement and enthusiasm about the "facts" they have learned all year. Learning is as natural as breathing, walking, and talking... but we have turned it into something that isn't natural at all. We have "institutionalized" it. Shame on us!

Other Quick Links:
The Trouble With the Test (11/01) by David Bacon
Testing Trap (Sept/Oct 2002 - Harvard Magazine) by Richard F. Elmore
Education vs. Regurgitation (1997 - Homeschool World) by Jessica Hulcy
Standardized Testing Humor (April 2006) - by Sprittibee


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11 comments:

Amanda said...

Truer words have never been said. Not only that, but they were very eloquent.

Also, your friend and her children have been in my prayers. Let me know if there is anything that any of you need.

Hugs to you all,
Amanda

Spunky said...

Well said Heather. Good for you and your son for not living your life around the test.

Sprittibee said...

Thanks Amanda. Thanks for praying, also. I know her situation is going to require a long-term praying plan. I think his funeral was today. Hugs back atcha!

Spunky - Thanks for the encouragement. Hope to see you on TV!

My Boaz's Ruth said...

If it helps any? When I was in public school, we didn't take practice tests for the IOWA. They didn't teach things just because they were going to be on the tests. the tests were just EASY. They covered basics (That's why they are called basic skill tests). That didn't need to be taught to for you to pick up. In the normal run of things, you just learned them.

Diana said...

I couldn't agree with you more that standardized testing, as it stands today, is a major downfall (what an understatement!) in the American public school system. Money and time are wasted and education as we know it is skewed, misguided all in the name of higher test scores that just might earn the funding that is unfairly and quite grossly being used as bribery. No child is left behind because all children are held back.

However, I do think that in the spirit of the post you composed you may have gone a bit overboard.

"All of those students will be test-taking machines, void of any real excitement and enthusiasm about the "facts" they have learned all year."

You state this as though it were as factual as the test scores in front of you when in reality it's nothing but an exaggerated scare tactic.

I happen to be a product of the very system that you are criticizing and while, as I stated, I agree that changes need to be made I am anything but a "test-taking machine void of any excitement and enthusiasm..." in regards to learning. If anything I am exactly the opposite, I value education and love the life-long journey of learning as do many, many products of the public school system I personally know.

There is a real crisis in our public schools today but to portray them as turning out nothing but zombie-like-robots is, at best, extreme.

I'm quite simply disappointed in the progression of what could have been a very thought-provoking article - especially since I know the author is intelligent enough to not have had to resort to such tactics to make an otherwise very valid point.

Sprittibee said...

My Boaz's Ruth: I don't know how old you are, but when I was in school, we were only in the beginning stages of taking standardized tests and it was not something that drove the entire school district.

Diana - I know that when I say that kids will be test-taking machines I can not speak for EVERY child. I am generalizing because the large majority of the graduates of a system as flawed as the one we have today will be lackluster at best. This makes me sad because it is these graduates that will be the peers of my children once they are in the "real world". I know that it will only make my kids shine that much brighter, but it makes me sad that they are being cheated so badly by the system.

I am not basing my judgements about the graduates of our current system only on the standardized tests, however. I did not discuss this issue in my post, but a lot of the issue with today's students is a moral issue. My brother-in-law is a college recruiter. He has worked for both private and public colleges in the Texas area. He has been to countless highschools (mostly public) across the southern states and tells greusome stories about the conduct and level of maturity of this new generation. He has witnessed kids having sex in the lunchroom RIGHT in front of him without supervision and was almost sick enough to puke! He has told me many stories and most have been very negative.

I think a lot of the decline in students' learning is also linked to moral decline of the school system itself. If you have no desire to "do good" for yourself and society, why learn things? Even if you DO have morals, it is not easy to learn in an environment where you are AFRAID all of the time. Only years after I moved away from my high-school they began to have gang problems and shootings. Those things were NEVER part of school when I was a child. Although there were drugs and smoking and people skipping school, I did not go to school each day walking through a metal detector and hearing about students shooting students on TV news at night. I was one of the kids that got in trouble and did drugs during high-school. It didn't do my education any favors! I have chalked that up as an "educational process" given to me by my public education (being surrounded by peers who were users). My sister, who was only seven years behind me, had to have a football player take her around campus because she was threatened constantly and he would wait outside the restroom for her to come out.

The times we live in are not like the times of yesterday. The world of today's students is quite a different one than you or I were part of in our school-days (I don't know how old you are, but it was well over 10 years ago that I was in the public school system). We still had pledges and prayers. We still had droves of conservative God-fearing teachers (they were the norm). There were no condoms passed out. There were no gay-pride rainbow busses. There were no transgender teachers. The time I lived in was pre-gang, pre-ACLU-attack, and pre-Columbine.

Take all the fears that students have today that we didn't, and add a system that is broken, more and more teachers who are liberal at best, a rigged financial pay-off for high test scores... and what do you get? A MAJORITY of kids who can take a good test, but are not prepared for life (at least not a fulfilling and good life by moral standards). Even the "good" kids whose parents have been involved are going to struggle at some point with the stresses on today's campuses and the dumbing down of educational materials. No, not every kid will have a bad experience. Not every kid will succumb to drugs and violence. Not every teacher is bad. But can we honestly stick our heads in the sand and say that there isn't a problem?

I am also a student of public school, so your comment is completely understood on those grounds. I had a few great teachers in my time... but then, it was well over 10 years ago when I was a public school student, and times are a lot worse today. It seems like comparing apples to oranges to try and compare my grandmother's school days (the old school-house on the prarie) to my school days... or to compare my school days to the current school system. I didn't have the added worry of shootings, metal detectors, campus police, or visible sexual acts happening right in front of me in the cafeteria. I had teachers who wouldn't get fired for talking about Creation. The worst fear on campus was the school bully... not some wacko with a gun or knife.

I'm not saying that ALL schools, ALL teachers, and ALL students (or even all TESTS) are bad. Just that the system is CHEATING the teachers and students with its liberal God-less lack of morality and its focus on test scores rather than actual learning. An eye-opening article is John Taylor Gatto's "Looking Behind Appearances". According to Gatto (and today's colleges), kids who are graduating today are NOT smarter than kids who graduated ten and twenty years ago.

My hope is that there will be many kids who will look further than their public education to the real world for learning (like I have) and will excel DESPITE their public education. I know that I have read more books and learned more since I left school than I ever did DURING. I have always been a reader and a person who loves to learn. I can promise you that learning as I teach my kids has been much more rewarding and fun than almost anything I did in 'school'. Homeschooling has opened up a new window into learning that I am amazed by each day. It is amazing to see my kids learning and growing and maturing before my very eyes. I compare myself to them at their age and I can SEE THE PROOF that institutionalized learning is clearly at a disadvantage to homeschooling. It doesn't take a standardized test to tell me that my kids have an advantage... although you can assume that from my son's test scores as well.

Anonymous said...

One thing I recently discovered about NCLB: NCLB doesn't apply to all schools, just schools that receive federal Title I funds (which kinda makes sense -- the federal government only "gets" to hold accountable those who take its funds). Per Wikipedia, you only get those funds if your school has around 40% or more of its students at or below the poverty line.

Point being, affluent schools aren't stealing money away from poorer ones because of their scores on tests under NCLB, because the affluent schools don't have access to the federal funds in the first place. (A high property tax base is the key reason affluent school districts get more money, and yes, in that manner the affluent district stays affluent in most states.)

I found this out because my local paper differentiated between schools that fail under NCLB and state guidelines and those who fail *only* under state guidelines in their state testing coverage.

Dreamer said...

Sprittibee-

I came to your blog from Spunky's blog. I love to read what homeschoolers are doing and how they plan the year as I hope to homeschool my daughter when she's old enough. She's only 2.

I too took the ITBS when I was in elementary school, almost 30 years ago. I don't know if test scores meant the same thing to school districts then as they do now. I'm guessing the answer to that is no. But I don't feel as though we were only taught to the test. I have to agree with Boaz's Ruth there. The tests were just very basic.

I too scored extremely high on these tests. In the third grade on several subjects I scored at the seventh grade level. As a result I was sent to a "gifted and talented" school. I don't feel as though I was especially gifted but an simply an average student who learning outside the classroom far exceeded that in the classroom.

I believe if a child is of average intelligence, believes that they can achieve, been taught to stick with difficult tasks to see them through and has supportive, engaged, wise parents, they will test well. Not to take anything away from your child who is obviously a good student, but I suspect he's also a good kid from a good family. I think that has a lot to do with it.

The problem is, as I see it, that so many parents do not take a hands on approach to their children's education. Even though I attended public school my parents did not leave my education up to the school. They served their purpose, but it was my parents who taught me the true lessons of life and many acedemic ones as well.

Just my two cents.

By the way, I said a quick prayer for your friend, her baby Hannah and the birth family. I hope that all goes well for her family and especially for that beautiful, sweet child.

God Bless!

Sprittibee said...

Interesting tax info, anonymous. I don't know much about that portion of the school funding process. It sounds interesting, however... and maybe I should do some research into where my money is being sent (not that I can do much about it other than just complain).

Dreamer - I think homeschooling starts at birth! You are already laying all the groundwork for academics. I'm sure the test scores are better with children who's parents take an active role in their education. I know there are a few public school parents who are actually involved almost as much as some homeschool parents are. I certainly am not grading my son's performance according to his test scores. He did NOT score as high at HOME as he did on the public school tests. He had A's, B's, C's and even a few failing grades on worksheets this past year! The great thing was, though... I was able to grade the papers and SEE where the problems were so we could work on the issues he needed help learning. No one cares about him more than I do (other than God!). ;) That is the beauty of homeschool.

I appreciate your prayers for baby Hannah. She was adopted already by my friend here and is doing GREAT. I need to get her mom to send a photo so I can do a re-cap. Thanks for the reminder.

Brenda said...

After reading your editorial comments about standardized testing--and, in this case, the Iowa Standardized Tests--I would like to refer you to the University of Iowa webpage containing recommendations about the time of year to take the tests: http://www.education.uiowa.edu/itp/itbs/itbs_use_time.htm If you read this page, you will see that the intended purpose of the test is to support instruction by providing information regarding each students' progress for the skills covered on the test. Therefore, the recommendation is that the tests be given during the fall of a traditional school year, thus allowing ample time for a teacher to address areas of concern upon receipt of the scores. Therefore, given the purpose and content of the Iowa Standardized Test, the "scope and sequence" about which you spoke actually is of little relevance. Though the test measures skills--and it sounds like your son possesses those he "should" at his age/grade level when using the norm-referenced percentage score--it does not closely follow from a specific "sequence" from, for example, a third grade curriculum. Also, I would argue that though I am firmly opposed to Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act" which gives legs to the practice of rewarding/punishing school districts and teachers based on test results, I do not believe that "teaching to the test" is necessarily or inherently a bad thing if the test covers basic skills which are imperative for the student to know for further education or even for functioning in society. Of course, our hope is that all children in schools (and homes) everywhere get to experience the joy of learning, the discovery of new ideas, and the satisfaction of pursuing knowledge to those ends. However, the basic skills being tested by those "greedy testing companies" [sic] must be attained in order to ...I can't write any more about this topic on this blog, because in reviewing what others (and you in response) wrote about the testing issue, I also read your opinion about schools today vs. ten years about ago, institutionalized (a perjorative word, I must say) schooling vs. homeschooling, and horror stories about teaching, teachers, students ,etc. in the "institutionalized" schools. Despite acknowledging that there are issues which exist in schools today that did not, as you say, exist even ten years ago, I think you unfairly place the responsibility of, for example, the moral depravity of the students, on the schools rather than on the homes and families from which these so-called "morally-depraved" students come. By and large, most educators are decent people who have a desire to "do right" by the students and the communities of which they are a part. At the very least, they are willing to be "in the trenches" working with children, many of whom come from "disadvantaged homes," rather than retreating and isolating themselves from the "big, bad world." Your affected humility belies your arrogance.

Anonymous said...

Can't help but respond to your account of the Iowa tests. My kids have attended public schools their entire school years and never have they been "taught to the test". They did not practice for it nor did they spend valuable class time trying to learn what would be on it.
You must know that public schools are all no more alike than home schools. I'm sure there are some poorly performing schools that do this but I don't personally know of any.
Good luck to you with your schooling - I'm sure you made the best choice for you and your family.

 

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