Motivated by Neglect: Concentrating on the Top Performing Students and Leaving the Lower Performing Students Behind

November 12, 2012 at 7:04 AM

What would students do if there were no tests?  Questioning the validity of testing measures calls us to be brave.  It charges us as practioners to review the research and look past the elephants bickering in the corners of our classrooms and kitchens, holding foreboding signs that shout, “We have always done it this way?”  What on earth will the parents say?”  “How will children learn self-discipline and study skills? And “How will my child prepare himself for the rigors of tomorrow’s workforce?”  To question the homework default puts us in a position to be advocates and stewards of the children we teach and reflect upon our own motives and methodologies for assigning nightly work.  We must put on research-laden armor and prepare to speak up and out at faculty meetings, meet-the-teacher nights, and parent-teacher conferences.  However, as a result, ‘ultimately, it’s not enough just to have less tests or even better constructed tests.  We should change the fundamental expectations in our schools so that students are asked to take tests home only when there’s a reasonable likelihood that a particular assignment will be beneficial to most of their subsequent work.  The bottom line:  Use tests except for those occasions when it’s truly necessary. 

To follow this charge, we need rich and provocative discussions about standardized test policies, consistent test schedules, the effect of tests on struggling learners, how tests is filling a nation of readers, and what types of tests meet the definition of ‘truly necessary.’  We need discussions that make us sweat just a little but because our responsibility is to our children, not to politics and precedents.  What if we paused and rethought the tests default based, not on pressures and precedents, but on what research suggests about tests and achievement.

For the last few decades, the time children have been devoting to organized sports and outside activities has declined substantially while independent reading time remains limited and time spent on homework has climbed sharply.  As educators, we have seemingly already decided that the small correlation between homework and achievement in the middle grade is in fact causation.  But it’s just as plausible that students who like school and excel at school are more likely to spend more time doing tests than students who do not like school and don’t excel at school and that motivation and level of achievement result from in-class learning, not time on tasks outside school.  These interpretations however don’t soothe our trepidations about achievement gaps.

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Most secondary science teachers for instance are familiar with a depressing pattern of scores on early exams and assignments seem to establish how well nearly all students will do in a course.  Nothing the professor does in the any subsequent weeks of instruction today, seems to help students who start out poorly.  However, in terms of college readiness, the SAT Report on College & Career Readiness indicates that 57 percent[i] of students will have difficulty maintaining a B-minus average or better in college during their freshman year.  A higher grade point average often correlates with student retention, with these falling below the DSAT benchmarks more likely to quit college.  More students than ever are taking their SAT college preparedness test, but the average scores are flat or slightly down.  Only 43 percent of SAT takers in the Class of 2012 academically ready for college.  In Connecticut, the average 2012 reading score fell three points, from 509 to 506.  The average math score was 512, a point lower than the 512 average score in 2012.  Writing scores dipped three points, from 513 to 510.  Nationwide, the average reading score in 2012 was 496, down from 597 in 20122.  The average math score was 514, the same as last year.  Writing was down a point, from 482 to 481.  Keeping in mind that the most a student can score on any section is 800.  Some say the nation’s heavy emphasis on testing is making things worse, not better.  Selective colleges use the SAT only to decide which applications should be quickly considered to the dumpster.  They always have more applicants with scores above 2000 than they have room for.  SAT distinctions at that level have no meaning, so admissions office find other ways to cull the herd.  Long term SAT trends may illuminate what a terrible job we are doing teaching reading and writing, but we should already know that.  Fewer colleges every year require applicants to take the SAT or the ACT.  Also, important is the fact that 875 accredited bachelor-degree granting colleges[ii] and universities do not require all or many applicants to submit test scores before making admissions decisions. 

Historically, the United States’ educational system has reacted to the perceived threat to global competition by withering autonomy, tightening the bolts of control, and calling for increased testing.  This was evident in bipartisan rollout of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.  But a scan of the global front reveals that teachers in top-performing nations, such as Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, assign less homework compared to their low performing counterparts in Greece, Thailand, and Iran.  US. Teachers lead the charge in making testing a high stakes event, with irony.  If caught in an unguarded moment, many teachers and parents will attest to the aforementioned perils of homework, yet moments later will redress in political correctness and process that tests teach self-discipline and study skills, not realizing there is a void of research supporting such claims.  Most adults work eight to 10 hour days and expect unstructured time in the evening to complete Household chores and connect with families, hobbies, and interest.  But tests deprive children of the same use of their nonwork hours spent preparing.  We need to give serious thought to the people that corner us and deride all our interests tell us that they were unimportant, then go on to spend hours tells us about their own interests and just how important and significant they were and they are.  Unfortunately, many student never find that “changed environment” or those space at school.  Where they do find them is while playing on the ball field, making discoveries when their intrinsic motivation inspires tem to press forward. This is a very different lived live than the one teachers currently offer here we send children home with structured testing rubrics, calling for narrow interpretations, and promising punitive measures if left undone or completed outside the boxes that teachers have outlines for them to master.  This testing experience is in opposition to what happens when people are engaged in authentic tasks with intrinsic motivations.  You can invest an enormous amount of yourself, your life, our time and nothing may come of it. 

[i] College Board 2012.

[ii] College Admissions.  Colleges Adjust Admissions standards for 2012-2013.  19, September 2012.


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