Saturday, May 12, 2012

Just When You Thought Standardized Testing Couldn't Get Any Stupider

When I first read about this story on the Ethics Alarms blog, I thought my netfriend Jack Marshall had found his way to the recreational chemicals, mistaken an article in the Onion for a real news story, or otherwise repeated silliness as if it were true. Surely, even the simultaneously vapid and arrogant pseudo-educators who run the educational testing industry wouldn’t think it appropriate to ask a 3rd-grader to reveal a secret and then detail why it was difficult to keep, right?

Ah, but they did. About 4000 8- and 9-year olds were in fact required to do exactly that on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) exam. Dr. Richard Goldberg, who has twin sons who were asked the question, also has far more sense than, apparently, the entirety of the New Jersey educational elite. Here’s his take:
I was kind of shocked because it was just a very–it was an outrageous question… to ask an 8-year-old, a 9-year-old to start revealing secrets in the middle of an exam—I thought was really inappropriate… these children—they want to answer the question, they want to ask it correctly, they don’t want to get a bad grade—but at the same time… think about the things a child might know–about themselves or their family.

[Whoever] put this question forward really needs to be called to account…. I find it incredible that someone could not possibly understand how dangerous or how uncomfortable a question like this might be… somebody was either very stupid or very arrogant.
Dr. Goldberg, in fact, articulates only the tip of a Titanic-sinking iceberg of reasons this question should never have made the first cut, let alone have appeared on a standardized test. Yes, it is ridiculously, hubristically, obscenely intrusive. Most of the consternation seems to be about logistics—what is a school’s responsibility if a child reports illegal activity, for example. This is because most school administrators are more concerned with covering their collective ass than in stewarding children. Yes, it’s a problem if little Johnny talks about something private. Who reads these exams? What are that person’s legal and ethical responsibilities? And so on.

But the real victims here are the children, not the parents or administrators, however much those groups might like to pretend otherwise. Child psychologist Dr. Stephen Tobias comes closer to the mark before veering off into his own exegesis on pragmatics:
I think it’s bound to cause a lot of anxiety in some kids–3rd graders tend to be very rule-governed so if an authority figure asks a question on a test—most would feel obligated to answer it… let’s say there are secrets about abuse or drug use or things like that—then what’s the responsibility of the school in terms of reporting it… I think a question like this, for the family, the child the school opens up a whole can of worms that I’m not sure people really want to deal with in this way… if the school finds out anything that might hint at abuse—they’re responsible for reporting it… you never really know how the kid is reading this question—it’s ill-advised to ask a question like this.
Dr. Tobias is getting warm, at least at the beginning. If a student reads that question, what happens? Well, s/he might just lie, make something up. This is, in practical terms, the best response because the student can blithely move on to the next question without disruption. Indeed, the test seems to encourage students to lie—any wonder plagiarism is so rife?

The student’s other option—the one faced by students who are actually developing a moral and ethical sensibility—is a sort of ethical dissonance. Even a 9-year-old knows that secrets are secrets for a reason. Yet, at the same time, s/he feels a need to be forthright: surely this Very Big Test wouldn’t be asking this question if it weren’t Really Important to Tell the Truth, right? This student is therefore conflicted, regardless of what s/he writes down, and is agitated, no doubt, for the rest of the test.

If the student doesn’t respond the way s/he thinks the test-graders expect, anxiety sets in. But if that 9-year-old dutifully tells a family secret, here comes the guilt for that lapse in promise-keeping. The good kids, in other words, are almost universally going to have mountains of stress added to the already high stakes of this kind of exam.

Such anxiety is hardly confined to small children, and hardly insignificant, especially given the consequences of these tests to students and teachers alike. I’ve had soon-to-be summa cum laude college graduates in my office telling me about how they’d panicked on a math or history test after getting “de-railed” (one student’s term) by a question early in the exam: “I just couldn’t think after that.”

This is why it isn’t enough not to count the question this time around (it was apparently only being “field-tested,” anyway) and to throw it out for subsequent exams, as is apparently being done. The entire test needs to be pitched, and, since it wasn’t the kids’ fault, they shouldn’t be required to take the exam again. Everybody passes. But every single person who signed off on this question, even as a test run, should be fired, and the testing company (Measurement, Inc. – how cute) should refund to the schools the cost of administering such slop. Governor Christie and all his colleagues in positions of political power—mostly but by no means exclusively Republicans—who think standardized testing ought to be more, not less, a part of the educational system, need to be called on the carpet.

Are we going to let the idiots who thought this even could be a legitimate question have a greater say in our educational system than teachers, principals, and other actual professionals? Or than parents and students, for that matter? The politicians need to acknowledge their culpability, and the press needs to shine the light on them. The minions at Measurement, Inc. aren’t the problem. They’re just rather stupid folks who can’t get a teaching job. The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the politicians and educational bureaucrats who hire this gaggle of yahoos, probably because they’re cheaper than their not-quite-so-incompetent competition. This is only one of many reasons high-stakes testing is a horrible idea, but it’s one of the most objectively provable.

This question, presumably, was green-lighted by the Measurement, Inc. people, a content expert at the Department of Education (another teacher who couldn’t get hired), a teachers advisory board (guess what kind of teacher serves on this… the ones who aren’t spending their time preparing lessons and improving their skills, of course). That’s a whole lot of people, not one of whom, presumably, had sense (or courage) enough to wonder aloud whether asking children to betray normative standards of morality was a really good idea.


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