Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Teaching to a test

For some years now, Arizona schools have had full blown involvement with Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS). Having been a professor in Arizona's junior colleges for over five years, I saw a lot of students. Let's just say that I was never overly impressed with their skill or knowledge level. Now with Standardized testing, like the AIMS Test, students who are already lacking in general knowledge helpful for survival, will degrade even further. Ranking schools according to the AIMS scores will guarantee that both students and teachers will concentrate on just the information required for the test and there will a further degradation of general knowledge.

Let me give an example. I taught Spanish 101, that is, introductory Spanish. One of the first questions I would ask the students every semester, was the following:

"What is the state that is directly south of and adjacent to Arizona?"

Now, without looking at a map, think of the answer. Give up? Well, let me ask the second question, "What is the name of the country immediately to the south of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California?"

Think you know the answer?

Let me give you hint, click here for the Wikipedia article.

The name of the country, for those of you who still don't get the questions, is the United Mexican States or the Unites States of Mexico. Mexico has thirty-one states. The state directly south of Arizona is Sonora.

In all of my classes, almost universally, no one could answer these two questions. Mind you, this was a college level Spanish class in Mesa, Arizona just179 miles from Mexico. When I ask the question to people randomly, I seldom get even a guess.

I use this example to point out that despite standardized testing or more likely as a result, the average American student knows practically nothing about the world around him or her when they leave 12 years of grade school and high school.

Looking at the AIMS test scores, it is apparent that most of the schools in Arizona fall into the range of test scores between 400 and 500. Although it is more difficult to read the scores than it is to take the test, if you look at the 2008 AIMS Scale Score Table, you can possibly determine that half of the Arizona students scored below meeting the standard set. Although the school may meet the standard, the score is a median so half of the students were below the standard. So not only are the students now learning only what is on a standardized test, likely half of the students aren't even learning enough to meet the test standard that is a score of about 450 to 550 or higher.

In their desire to force students to learn some basic facts to pass the test, they are ignoring teaching the students many survival skills at all. Another example, how many 12th graders can balance a check book without assistance and read a credit card bill?

Presently, a whole support industry has arisen around the tests. There are tutors, companies with practice tests and in fact, the Arizona Department of Education even has a set of sample tests. A system of education that was already impoverished is now almost totally bankrupt. Teachers who want to educate their students are forced to spend most of their time teaching to the test because their effectiveness is measured, to a great extent by the test scores of their students. What is worse, many students will begin to or already associate education with the AIMS test.


  1. When I was in high school they were starting the pilot tests to see how the students preformed before setting the standard. So I was one of the guinea pigs they tested the test on. Because of this I did not have to pass the test in order to graduate. That meant that when I was actually given the test I made little or no effort to pass the test.

    When I got my scores back it turned out that not only had I passed all the sections of the test but I was also listed as "Well above average" in the math section. This would have been expected except that I spent that portion of the test filling in random bubbles and did not even read half the questions let alone make an effort to answer them correctly. Statically I should have gotten a 25% on the test. I got lucky and got a raw score of somewhere between 30% and 40% (which according to their scale was "Well above average"). In other words, in order to pass the math portion of the test all you have to do is fill in random bubbles and you will pass. I doubt that is a good measure of intelligence.

    The next year they made us take it again to "calibrate the test". We found out after wards that 95% of the seniors at my high school skipped school that afternoon and did not take the test (that was the first time I saw the movie U-571). So they used the 5% of the students that could not get out of taking the test to calibrate the test for the next year. Again not the best reference for a general "standard".

    While these comments are directed at a specific test, these are problems that are faced by any standardized test. Ultimately I think standardized tests measure too narrow a type of intelligence, and promote problems that would not have been an issue otherwise.

  2. Amen.

    I was a teacher's aid for 2 grammar schools in the Creighton School District for about 5 years. The district was considered inner-city, as as such, was locked in a constant pursuit of federal and state funding for programs that never netted the desired result; sub-grade level children actually improving and integrating into grade level. Everything was designed to classify students "at risk" and then keep them there until they stumbled into middle school.

    We spent literally 6 or 7 weeks straight in the Spring doing NOTHING but drilling "test skills", ie: how to read a ruler, how to fill-in a bubble, how to respond to multiple choice, how to interpret comparisons, etc.

    All other subjects were suspended, except for a month-long unit on Martin Luther King, Jr. No reading, no math, no social studies, no library visits, no computer lab...

    Even later in the year when testing had concluded, I was censured for teaching my reading group (at risk students)classic poetry: Robert Frost, Tennyson and Dickinson. I argued that the children needed "beautiful language" - something that would truly inspire them to love reading, not just to go through the motions in a cumbersome, ill-conceived reading tutorial that made them fill out so many questions (to show comprehension)that it was beyond tedious -

    ...the esteemed "educator" retorted: "I don't care if they know how to read! I don't care if they like to read! All they need to do is fill out the work book and pass the test! You are not going to interfere with my pay raise!"

    I quit.

  3. Couple AIMS with No Child Left Behind and you've got a recipe for school failure. How should we evaluate schools? By a single exam? Or how about going back to practical teaching? It's gotten worse since you left teaching.

  4. I have to say that I'm a fan of standardized tests. While I don't think they should be used exclusively to measure the performance of a school or of students, I think that if they are implemented correctly they can be good.

    I do not think that teachers should teach to the test (unless it is something useful like an AP test). I'm also opposed to all of the time and money that people spend in test preparation courses for the SAT, ACT, and GRE. I don't mind if people study for them (I studied for the GRE) but attending intensive courses is overkill.

    Of course, I'm also a fan of intelligence tests. They aren't perfect (and the concept of intelligence as quite static is not accurate - although it is pretty static in this life) but they are useful (e.g., predicting educational achievement and other similar things), especially to use when comparing performance on other neuropsychological tests.

    In summary, I'm only opposed when standardized tests are used improperly.