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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.
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