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Gaming the Tests

vonzastrowc's picture

If there's a test, then there's a way to game it. It's crazy to think that we should therefore abandon standardized tests. But it also makes no sense to rely on test scores without looking for supporting or conflicting evidence elsewhere. Yesterday's New York Times piece on the City's gifted and talented Kindergartens drives this point home.

Two years ago, the score on a standard city-wide test became the sole basis for admission to those programs. Since then, the share of black and Hispanic children in those programs has plummeted. It appears that wealthy parents are buying pricey test-prep books and services for their children. Poor children are, of course, priced out of that market.

I don't know how healthy it is for wealthy four year olds to "turn to jelly on test day" because they've absorbed their parents' fears that a low score will blow their chances at Harvard. But I'm at least as worried about the fate of poor kids when the testing system gives rise to a market whose very premise is that money buys advantage.

As usual, the intentions behind the testing program were noble. Schools chancellor Joel Klein wanted an objective measure that put all children on an equal footing.

But I'm not sure the unintended outcome should really surprise us. We need look no further than the college admissions industry to see what can happen. Wealthy parents buy test prep services, and some even hire college consultants to help them craft the perfect college essay. The tutors of the poor are big-hearted volunteers. The tutors to the rich are often professionals, some of whom make more than teachers do.

To its credit, the City's Department of Education has plans to create "a different kind of test" that can't be so easily gamed. But testing experts quoted by the Times say "there is no magic test that can’t be gamed." The debate about tests often assumes a trade-off between objectivity (standard tests) and depth (observations, performance assessment, etc). In fact, standard tests aren't always as objective as they're made out to be.

In the end, we do have to find ways to assess kids that resist manipulation. But all of us, and that includes champions of testing, should be honest about what we're in for. The assessment systems that are hardest to game are also hardest to create and hardest to score. And they cost much more money.

They may well include multiple choice questions, but they should also include things like observations, performance tasks and projects, which some deride as fluffy and unreliable.

So much of the debate on school equity and quality hinges on our trust in (or suspicion of) the standardized tests that have multiplied across the land. The Times story about the tests our youngest children take dramatizes that point. It's high time to do the hard and expensive work of creating a far more robust system of multiple measures.

Very good points made about

Very good points made about why testing ad infinitum is not the answer. Too many serious policy decisions are being made on the basis of these flawed test. What they show or don't show is rarely questioned by many policymakers.

Meh, money has always bought

Meh, money has always bought advantage. But I think another concern would be the late bloomer. Or boys in general, as they learn to read later as a rule than girls.

Yes, the lot of late bloomers

Yes, the lot of late bloomers could be a concern, given that early G&T efforts might not recognize them. That's why we need to remain the nation of second and third chances.

But I can't join you in waving away the problem that money buys advantage. Yes, it always has and it always will. But I'm not quite sure what it means to say that we cherish equal opportunity when a school system that is supposed to level the playing field continues to favor the wealthy. It may be a tough nut to crack, but if we just give up I wonder what we've made of our principles.

Um, you can NOT level the

Um, you can NOT level the playing field. It's nice to try to give an equal opportunity WITHIN each school, however. (Important difference... hardly a matter of semantics.) That is a worthy goal, so long as it is not achieved through the use of quotas or other unfair measures.

But outside of educational circles, NO ONE believes in the "equal opportunity" of public education. Just ask a realtor. :)

Mrs. C, you're right that we

Mrs. C, you're right that we can't always remove every singly obstacle that gives some people (usually wealthy people) and advantage over others. And we all know that children in wealthier areas do better than those in poor areas. 

But I don't see how we can make peace with appallingly un-equal educational opportunities in this country. We can certainly make things a whole lot more equitable than they are now, both within and between schools. And we sure can take measures to ensure that tests that serve as a gatekeeper to opportunities measure more than the kind of money parents to devote to test prep materials.

If no one believes in equal opportunity, then there goes a fundamental American value. If we're comfortable with the fact that inheritance (of money, of status, of opportunity) is the major means of passing wealth and well-being from one generation to the next, then what happened to the American experiment?

No, things will never be perfect, but I can't see how it serves us NOT to do what we can to level the playing field.

Gotta agree with Claus here.

Gotta agree with Claus here. Absolute equality of opportunity (not results) is a pipedream. That doesn't mean that we can't try to get closer to that goal.

School quality and educational opportunity doesn't have to be a static, zero-sum, game. Just because one student is being brought-up doesn't necessarily mean that we have to take things away from other students. We want to improve the chances for poor kids to get into the proverbial "good schools", AND close the quality gap between the good and the bad.

As for this particular case, if we can demonstrate that extra testing materials (test prep books, etc) give a significant advantage, perhaps the city can look into stocking more of these books into libraries, or or providing some of these test-prep services for free, like many poorer high schools do with AP testing. It isn't a perfect solution, but it could help.

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