Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Modern Rites of Passage: Or Reflections on the Tyranny of Standardized Tests

Please review the illustration below and answer the question that follows. 

Question from New York State Regents Sample Earth Science Exam, January 24, 2013.

Now pretend that your future college and employment options depend on your ability to answer said question (and 84 others like it).

And while you're at it, pretend that you are 14- or 15-years-old. And that you have an autism spectrum disorder.  Or dyslexia.  Or haven't had breakfast.  Or your parents just divorced.  Or whatever else might be going on in the life of a 15-year-old. 

Can you answer the question?

I can't.  Even if I don't imagine all the other variables in this thought experiment, I can't answer the question correctly. 

In fact, I can't answer most of the questions on the 9th grade New York State Earth Science Regent's exam.*

Has that hampered my prospects in life? Perhaps. I'm not an astrophysicist. I'm not a geo-engineer. And I'm not a meteorologist.  I'm okay with that.  I'm a tenured university professor at a highly-respected university in New York City. I've won numerous federal grants. I'm the author of a well-received book in my field from a major university press. Most people who know me think of me as rather well-educated and knowledgeable.

Usually I wouldn't share this information about myself, but it seems relevant to these tests as some metric of educational attainment.

But if I were 15-years-old today, there is a good chance that I would not earn a high school diploma in New York State. Well, let me clarify that. I might earn what's called a "local diploma" in New York State. 

Anywhere else (as far as a I know) a high school diploma is a high school diploma. But in New York State we have an educational caste system where some kids earn a "Regents diploma," some earn what's called a "local diploma," and some earn an "IEP diploma." 

To earn a Regents diploma you have to earn at least 65 points on five Regents exams: English, Math, Global History, American History, and one science (either Earth Science or Biology). To earn a local diploma you have to have 55 or more on these four exams. Without that, you either don't graduate or, if you have an IEP, you can earn an IEP diploma. You can go to a private college with a local diploma, but you can't go to the New York State University (SUNY) system, the most affordable schools in the state.

Since last summer we have been working hard to see that our girl will pass the five Regents exams that are required for the Regents diploma. The first of these exams took place in June. A passing score is 65 or above. A "low pass" is 55-64. And below 55 is a non-passing score.

After a year of work toward passing these exams, our girl earned a 64. That is, she missed a regular passing score by one point. One point. 

She had a near perfect score on the lab section of the exam: 15/16.  She routinely earns A's and B+'s on in-class exams that cover the same material. Her teacher said this exam just had too much vocabulary for her.

I was thrilled for her that she had passed, even with a low pass. Her father is heartbroken and angry that she didn't earn at least 75 points since she does much better than that in her course work.

For two weeks after the exam scores were in, we spoke, and argued, and spoke, about almost nothing else: he wants her to study all summer with him and retake the exam in August. I want her to have a summer break, revel in having passed it (4 of the 39 students in her class did not earn even a low pass), and start to look a the vocabulary for the upcoming Biology and Global History exams.

I understand his position: he thinks that these exams and the information therein actually matter in life. He thinks it's a worthy goal to pass these exams with high scores. And he thinks letting her get by with a low pass is giving up on her and her future.

And I think these exams are unnecessary and damaging hurdles that destroy a natural love of learning and replace it with a desire to pass, to score, to win – and often, to cheat a system that is unfairly rigged against our kids. I think they contribute to the single most annoying question I get in every class I teach: "Will this be on the test?" I think these exams are destroying our kids' lives, turning them into test-taking machines. Having her study for these exams is, in my mind, nothing more than a necessary evil.

So we don't agree. We won't agree. We've agreed to disagree. We haven't decided what to do: whether she will retake the exam in August or not.

What I do know is that as a society we seem to love our educational standards more than we love our kids if we are willing to subject them to this adolescent rite of passage called standardized testing.

So-called primitive tribal societies would incise their young people's skin with magical markings and rub in ash to create the raised welts of scarification, or send them into the forest to fend for themselves to mark the passage to adulthood, reincorporating them into the group when they healed or returned from their quest.

Here in New York State we are somewhat more subtle. The scars we create are invisible: we mark our children's neural pathways with specialized technical knowledge that will likely be of no actual use to them, send them into the ordeal of testing arena, and then reincorporate them into a stratified society based, in part, on how well they perform this task.

We can opt out of this rite of passage, but what sort of future can we imagine for our girl if we do? That is the question we have pondered for the past three weeks. What do you think about high stakes exams for our kids, ASD and otherwise? What have you done about such tests?

* The answer for the exam question, if not to these bigger questions, is "D. White dwarf." You can look at this exam and any of the other archived Regents exams at:


Jan said...

Geez, nobody is commenting? Must be summer. Or no one can face the question.

My college-aged son is furious at the poor wording of the question and ranting about how the answer given is wrong. He (having retained his curiosity despite schooling) has looked it up on NASA's website.

My daughter (the one with the learning issues and huge anxiety) is so upset over standardized testing that she started worrying in 9th grade about having to take the ACT in 11th grade (she just finished 10th now).

More and more these days, I think that school is a bad bad place for lots of kids, mine included. It squelches any curiosity and desire to learn, it tries to squeeze them into all sorts of holes and boxes in which they do not naturally fit, it makes them feel like failures. Standardized testing is just a piece of it.

I used to think that she would be a dynamite adult, if we could just get her there. Now I worry that school has so scarred her that she'll be unable to function independently by the time she gets through.

More than you wanted to know, right? :)

MothersVox said...

Hi Jan,

Thanks for breaking the comments ice on this one! Though it's so hot in NYC today that it's hard to believe there is ice anywhere, even metaphorical versions!

Your daughter sounds like my husband and I -- we started worrying about it (and preparing) fully a year ago. Our girl, oddly, seems to take it in stride. She doesn't care if she gets a Regents diploma, although I don't feel we have adequately explained the disadvantage of the local diploma.

I agree that school no longer seems like a great place to send kids. I hope your girl is not too scarred by it. I do really feel as though this is some sort of horrible rite of passage that we've created to structure the entry to adulthood (and disadvantage so many of our brilliant and beautiful kids). It's so wrong.

The other tough thing about an issue like this is that, frankly, it's a miracle she did this well on this exam. She worked hard for every point of the 64 points, and for some kids -- many whom we know -- such an exam would not be possibility with any amount of hard work. It's one of these ways that the HF, LF labels fragment our community.

It's hard. I wish these exams were banned!

audball said...

Add me to the list of people who think this standardized testing is a waste of valuable education time. Here in our state (OR), we spend about 1.5 months prepping (in one form or another) for the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) test in the elementary school setting. My son, who is not on the spectrum, but has anxiety issues, stresses about this test in January (they typically test in April). When I think of all the class time that is spent "teaching to the test", it angers me. And his school is one of the more conservative schools in the district, as far as taking class "learning time" to prep!

We had a number of students protest the OAKS test this year (they didn't take the test; just wrote on the top of the exam: "I choose not to take this exam" and sit with a book for the entire testing period). I even had a SLP teacher (who knew my DD from when she was still attending our local brick and mortar school), flat out tell me that if my daughter returned to a standard classroom, she should opt out of the test! This is a special education teacher telling me this. She said it provokes anxiety in many ASD kids and frankly, doesn't show the scope of knowledge, particularly with kids who have specific interests.

Unfortunately, the program I chose for my DD for 4th and 5th grade (OR Virtual Academy) *required* that she take the OAKS test. (Most likely, it was to prove the legitimacy of the program to the state of Oregon.) To illustrate how ridiculous this test is for her, she took almost 2 hours to take the math portion of this test. Because of her anxiety about passing the math portion, we had to schedule a separate day for testing. She passed this year, but did not pass for grade 3 and grade 4.

Conversely, she took 25 minutes to take the reading test and 20 minutes to take the science test. Science is her "splinter skill" and apparently she went through that portion of the exam so quickly, the proctor thought she was guessing on all the answers. She "Exceeded" in both tests, but talk about a waste of time! The test told me what I already know; she has difficulty in math, but enjoys reading and science.

The amount of stress and extra "coaching" I had to give her to try to pass the math portion was ridiculous. I could have spent that time furthering her studies in something she enjoyed, giving her break, etc. Instead, she and I were sometimes reduced to tears of frustration...

To be honest, two years ago, I was like your husband. I placed a lot of emphasis on standardized tests because I looked at these tests as the "norm" and wanted to ensure that my daughter fit the "norm". If she didn't, I worried about her future in "normal society". But I started to think about the craziness of this type of thinking. She is not "neurotypical" by any means. She does not think like a standard student, she does not excel in the "traditional" ways. I can't use these "neurotypical" metrics to measure my daughter's success. For this reason (and many others!), using these tests as a gauge of future success is flawed for her. She will have to demonstrate to college admissions boards and future employers that her skills lie in what is not measured typically. My job (and my husband's job), is to nurture her strengths and help her learn to demonstrate her skills; show her abilities in ways that these stupid tests can't.

Tl; dr: To paraphrase Herb Cohen: "I care, but not that much..." I have had my daughter take the test, but I will not take valuable learning time to "teach to the test". And yes, when she goes back to a brick and mortar school for middle school this year, I will have her opt out of the test.

audball said...

And I forgot to add, congratulations to Sweet M on passing her test! It's a huge accomplishment :) She is such a good student, I feel that this test only shows one facet of her learned skills. Her classwork is very important. Frankly, some people (myself included), just don't test well....We find our strengths and move forward.

Re. the "wordiness" of the test, would her school district allow her to test as a special education student? Could she have accommodations, such as having someone read the questions to her? Would that help?

Terrell said...

This is great!