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4/9: Testing Season for Kids

It's time to show us what you know

At this time of year, states roll out their yearly standardized tests and begin their annual foray into digging up dirt on students and teachers.

Perhaps that's a bit harsh. But maybe not.

No one I know looks forward to these tests. Not the children. Not their parents. Certainly not the teachers. Maybe the test publishers do, though. Companies like Pearson, Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill rake in money by the billions to create the tests that will provide data for politicians and pundits to pore over.

Have you ever looked at a standardized test? It's a tricky business because you're not supposed to know what's on it. Even teachers are not allowed to watch their students tests, even though we often do walk around the computer lab during testing and read over their shoulders. Curiosity is a powerful motivator.

A way you can see the test, or at least part of a previous version of it, is to look up released items on the internet. Here's one way to search: type in PARCC released items, and you should get a few choices rich with content. Here...I did it for you: PARCC released items. The first choice that came up is from a website called In their own words, they offer paid test preparation for more than twenty tests given to students for various purposes. Testing and the prep for it are big business.

But back to PARCC. What is it, exactly? Well, it's part of the driving force behind Common Core, and it stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of states that collaboratively developed a common set of assessments to measure student achievement and preparedness to enter either college or the workforce.

The problem with this is that PARCC's idea of preparedness to enter the work force differs a tad from what you might expect. How do I know this? From an examination of the test items. Let's take a look, shall we?

Here is a question from 2019, grade 3 math:

Which question can be answered using 6 x 4?

⭕There are six birds in a tree and four fly away. How many birds are still in the tree?

⭕There are six books on a shelf and four books on a table. How many books are there in all?

⭕There are six stacks of quarters with four quarters in each stack. How many quarters are there?

⭕There are six pieces of fruit shared among four friends. How many pieces of fruit will each friend get?

This question is a way to find out if students understand the concept of multiplication as repeated addition, as well as the vocabulary used to discuss mathematical operations. You can be sure there are posters on the teacher's wall with this vernacular plainly displayed. Of course, those posters are covered during the test, but the hope is that the child will have seen them often enough that he will know what to do. Here is where the test prep part comes in.

A good portion of a child's ability to test well is his ability to navigate the test itself. This is why teachers spend hours of instruction time each spring on teaching children how the test works and giving them practice tests on the computer. You see, once the actual test begins, the child is not able to ask any questions, and the teacher is not allowed to help him at all. If there has been ample practice beforehand, teachers theorize that kids will be able to troubleshoot on their own.

The questions do get more involved. Here's another math item for 3rd grade:

This question involves place value and a child's ability to convert the way the values are displayed at the top of the question into regular numbers: "First Game: 1 ten + 15 ones" = 10 + 15. However, students had previously learned that 15 ones equals 1 ten and 5 ones, so it might be natural for them to be confused by this deliberatively confusing way of representing the value. A child might raise her hand to ask if the test made a mistake and meant to write 1 ten and 5 ones. The teacher is supposed to smile encouragingly and tell the child to take the test exactly as it is written and to assume there are no mistakes. What the student does after that is anyone's guess. He might decide there is a mistake and solve the problem for 1 ten and 5 ones; he might decide the problem is written correctly and solve the problem for 1 ten and 15 ones, making an error in calculation anyway; or he might solve the item correctly.

Whatever the outcome of the child's thought process, is this an efficient way to assess a child's place value and critical thinking skills? If you examine the entire item (which is only half of what the child is asked in this question, because there are also parts B and C), you probably see that he must compare values in the first and second games and then be able to explain his thought process by typing it into the box. This is third grade! Students are at most nine years old. What if the kid can't or won't explain why he thinks what he thinks? His results are going to be sub-par, and that data will be used to show that neither the child nor the teacher are doing anything productive to learn grade level math.

Tests like this assume a child is going to tackle everything earnestly, as if someone is discussing each item with him, except that he has to type his part of the discussion into a box. If the test were administered in an actual discussion format (one on one, with a proctor taking notes about the child's thought process), we could get an accurate glimpse at the child's acumen. This method seems more hit-and-miss than that.

There are 19 items on 18 pdf pages in this practice test. Take a moment to click this link and peruse them yourself. There's a lot of wording used to ask these questions. The successful student wades through that wording to get at the heart of each question. What is his motivation? There isn't any, really, from the kid's perspective. There is nothing riding on the test, for him. When something looks difficult or like it will take too long, the temptation is to click any answer and skip the explanation boxes. Wouldn't you, if the test meant nothing?

This is the disconnect in standardized testing. The results mean everything to teachers, adminstrators, researchers, and politicians. But they mean nothing to the person delivering those results. How, then, can the rest of us let so much ride on their outcome?

Read next week's Journal for Part 2 on Testing.

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