Goal displacement and testing

One of the dangers of any metric is that the metric itself becomes the goal. Thus, rather than concentrating on making sure students become competent readers, schools may concentrate on trying to improve the reading test scores, by concentrating on teaching students test-taking strategies.

The problem is not low test scores; it is that too many students have low reading and math skills. We know this from many other indicators including drop-out rates, the lack of success for many students in college, and complaints from employers. But the test is the most consistent indicator we have to make comparisons among schools, classrooms, and over time. (4th grade teachers are often very aware of which third-grade teacher’s students are well prepared and ready to learn, but I am not aware of anyone who has been able to turn this in to a consistent measure.)

Some test advocates will say that confusing the metric with the goal shouldn’t matter; if the metric is a good one, improving it should also lead to improvement in the underlying goal. Low reading and math scores should lead to a search for better ways of teaching reading and math.

This is fine if the search for better reading and math scores leads to better reading and math skills. But what if it leads to time taken in class to teach test-taking strategies or hold pep rallies before the test? Whether or not these activities improve test scores (and there is considerable research that says their effect is small or even negative), they are very unlikely to improve the basic skills.

The emphasis on reading and math tests has been blamed for an impoverishment of education. This includes the disappearance of recess in some schools. But where is the research that says kids are better readers if they don’t get out and run around once in awhile? If it exists, I haven’t seen it.

Similarly, I have not seen any research that shows that schools who deemphasize science and history, or eliminate shop and home economics, thereby improve their students’ reading and math skills.

There does, however, exist increasing evidence that character, including fulfilling one’s commitments and being able to delay gratification, have a major impact on success, both in school and in one’s career.

As I mentioned briefly earlier there has been controversy over whether one can increase test scores without increasing underlying skills. Certainly it can be done by cheating. And companies claiming they will increase college entrance exam scores make lots of money on that proposition.

And some kinds of test prep may indeed increase student skills. Some years ago I looked at a program that was sold explicitly on its promise to increase 4th grade reading scores on state tests. When I looked back on the results, the schools chosen for this program increased the scores not only on the 4th grade reading tests, but also in other subjects and in other years. Part of this program involved giving frequent tests to see how the students were progressing. I speculated that this practice trained teachers to become much more aware of how their students were doing.

If our goal is truly one of increasing reading and math skills, then it becomes irrelevant as to whether test-taking strategies improve scores. There is too little time in the school day to spend it on activities that do not improve student skills.

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