Education in America: Standardized Tests = BMI

Today’s topic in our Education in America series is standardized tests.  As Mona and I have touched on briefly, they’re not the silver bullet which will expose and then fix all the problems in education.  In fact, they might be making things worse.  Let’s dig in, shall we?

Let’s start by comparing standardized tests to something we’re all familiar with and potentially misinformed about: dreaded BMI.  The term and mathematical formula used to calculate BMI were created by Belgian Adolphe Quetelet in the mid 1800s, as a tool for measuring the general health of entire populations, not as a diagnostic tool for individuals. So, for example, if scientists wanted to examine the obesity rate in Paris vs. the obesity rate in Kansas City, MO, they would compare the average BMI of the respective populations, not individual BMI ratingsIt’s not an accurate measure of individuals, because it creates a one-size-fits all picture of how bodies are constructed.   Yet, nearly every ladymag, ladyblog, doctor’s office and a handful of late night infomercials will tell you it’s a great way for you to assign yourself a label, from underweight to obese.

Standardized tests are great for measuring strengths and weaknesses across large populations or demographic groups of children, but much like BMI, they don’t effectively measure the strengths and weaknesses of individual students or individual classrooms/teachers.   This is why many teachers’ unions are fighting against merit pay – most unions are supportive of a merit-based pay system, as long as the tools used to measure a teacher’s effectiveness are both fair and accurate.   Most state-wide standardized tests, the gold standard by which schools, administrators and teachers are weighed and measured, can’t possibly accurately or effectively measure any of the three. Here’s why, with bullet points, because I know these pieces get a li’l dry.

Also, here's a sassy turtle.
  • Standardized tests are snapshots in time.  You’ll hear teachers say this a lot, but it means more than you think it means.  Standardized tests are given over a series of days; usually all public schools in a state will administer the tests within the same two-week window.  Ideally, the standardized tests are aligned with both the state’s academic standards and the school’s curriculum, which gives students the highest chance of getting passing scores. A sixth grade student in Indiana, for example, will take the ISTEP test in April and May, and it will cover both fifth grade skills and sixth grade skills.  Because it’s standardized, the tests are limited to multiple choice questions, except for essay writing, which is graded by people like this person reporting from the trenches of the scoring centers.  The multiple choice format, as any education professional will tell you, is an ineffective measure of how much a student grasps about a concept, as it doesn’t venture north of the bottom sliver of Bloom’s.  (I love my Bloom’s.  Wait until I introduce you to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.)  On one tiny set of days which could be months or seasons after little Jimmy and Mary Sue thought they’d never have to multiply another fraction or identify the object of another preposition.
  • Standardized tests can’t be teaching tools.  The best and most effective student evaluation tool is the one you can interpret RFN to identify individual student strengths and weaknesses.  In Indiana, the scores from the April tests aren’t returned until the following school year, when those hypothetical sixth graders are in seventh grade.  While testing companies have gotten better about giving schools disaggregated data relating to specific skills or state academic standards as the years have gone on,  scores aren’t individualized and itemized enough to be used as tools to guide future instruction.
  • Standardized testing isn’t always fair or accurate.  The rigidity of standardized testing ironically makes it biased against students who don’t speak English as a first language (in Indiana, immigrant children are only allowed to take the ISTEP test in their native language for one year after they enroll in an Indiana public school) and students who learn differently.  Both groups have abysmal passing rates across all district types (urban, suburban and rural), and as a result many of these students are clustered in one or two schools per district.  Since NCLB sanctions require schools that repeatedly don’t meet AYP to eventually restructure the staff from the administration to the secretary, these cluster schools are often in constant chaos, with high staff turnover, painful budget cuts and limited community involvement.  If a city, district or staff can’t commit to saving a failing school, neither will the community surrounding it.
  • Testing bias.  Standardized tests are created by people who often have very few experiences in common with the individuals who are taking the tests.  Being crucial in the design of a Massively Multi-Player Standardized Test requires at least a Master’s degree or higher, which we learned a few weeks ago only includes 8% of our American population, although more recent data I found (from 2007 instead of 2003) shows 10% of Americans with some type of advanced (beyond a Bachelor’s) degree.  That already disproportionate number also contains only 3.9% of the Hispanic (of all races) population and 5.8% of Blacks.  While there are statistical measures which can lessen bias, the fact that a very limited group of people is creating the yardstick by which all of our children are measured is worthy of questioning.
  • Meeting NCLB goals is impossible with norm-referenced tests.  NCLB requires that all students be 100% proficient in grade level skills by 2014.  Using norm-referenced tests (in which scores naturally form a bell curve) makes it impossible for 100% of students to pass.  If 100% of students got perfect scores, it would be an indicator of a very bad norm-referenced test.

To sum up, the collective interpretation of both BMI and standardized tests teaches us one important lesson: in our data-driven society, we need to do a better job in teaching our citizens about statistics.

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

9 thoughts on “Education in America: Standardized Tests = BMI”

  1. Oh how I hate No Child Left Behind. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not a conspiracy to completely destroy public education by inevitably declaring all schools in poor areas “failing” and giving everyone vouchers to go to private schools or charter schools that can reject students based on any number of circumstances. It’s almost like the Bush administration wanted people to get poor, or poorer, and every generation of their family to stay poor because of a lack of educational opportunities. Ugh, just thinking about those rotten eight years makes me puke, especially considering we’ll be living with the Bush administration for the rest of my lifetime thanks to John Roberts, and destructive policies like NCLB and the damage that Wikileaks has shown that we’ve done to innocent people.

  2. Excellent article. This hits home right now because my kids start their round of standardized tests in two days.

    I teach a standardized-tested subject. And all your points are right on (especially bullet #1. Oh how I love Bloom’s.) I also dislike the decisions The Test forces me to make. Do I teach my kids the proof of the quadratic formula by completing the square, explaining conceptually why each step works? Nope, because there’s only mayyyybe one question on The Test on completing the square, and I don’t have the time. And that’s just one tiny example, and not even a particularly good one.

    The decisions don’t stop with me, either. My school administration and district administration also makes decision aimed at increasing standardized test performances–which is not necessarily the same thing as doing what’s best for students.

  3. I read a really good summary somewhere of how standardized testing excludes people without a “standard American” culture to reference, and one of the examples it gave was of one state test that had an essay question that was something like, “why is fishing fun?” Because most kids whose parents work full time and more and who don’t have reliable transportation or even people whose parents aren’t jazzed on fishing have ANYTHING to say about that topic. I just thought that was a funny and illustrative example.

    And as a teacher, sure, it’s easier to teach kids with lots of educational privilege. I’m pretty sure that my current students would do well on all those tests and I would get merit pay or whatever. (Disclosure: I teach college, but same thing.) When I taught at a community college right next to a military base, my kids on average did MUCH more poorly, but I think the things they were learning were often harder-won and more nuanced. Not always, but often. Anyway, I think long-term I’d rather teach there, but not if my salary is determined by their test scores.

  4. I have to wonder, since you’re outlined so clearly why both the BMI and Standardized testing is highly inaccurate for individuals, why it’s still used?

    My son, who is in Special Ed, is required to take the same test that every other student takes and expected to pass it. When I mention how unfair this is to him, all of his teachers say, I know. So I wonder, if everyone knows, why isn’t anything being done about it?

    Its so frustrating!

    And I’m not even going to touch the BMI issue!!!!

    Thanks for a great article!

    1. I think it’s because so many elected representatives think that the only way to see results is to look at numbers. Same goes for insurance companies and doctors. If you can quantify something, then you can measure it, right? So these companies are promising to quantify learning or obesity in order to get the money that is rewarded to those who dare to quantify such immeasurable qualities. Unfortunately, the people who are asking for the quantification aren’t really examining the source, or how the numbers reduce to their final data, and that’s why there is little spoken about cultural bias or anything else in this awesome article by an elected official.

      I attribute it to people who think that once again, you can run education like a business, just like they think you can run health care like a business. It’s not like these two “industries,” though I will refer to them as institutions, exist solely to make profits and to answer to shareholders who share in the profits. Unfortunately elected representatives have decided that if they have data to point to and say “See, the schools we have are great based on this number,” then the shareholders, i.e. the voters will be pleased. It’s a highly flawed model, and it’s all that’s been offered up in the last 20 or so years. I hate that it’s so simplistic, and sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a conspiracy theory to keep people from gaining critical thinking skills so they can’t analyze the way society really works when they get out into “the real world.”

  5. The End.

    (I have a sassy turtle tail picture but I’m not sure it’s going to load? Or if I’ve inadvertently loaded three of the same turtle butt pictures…)

    I love turtles, this is known but another fun fact is my love of good stats and their gross misinterpretations. So, I’m pretty much in love with this post.

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