Texas Snow Days Expose the Gaming of Standardized Tests
As you might have heard, considering all of the Super Bowl media hype from here in North Texas, our weather has been pretty bad. Between different ice storms, we've been “snowed in” four separate days in the last two weeks, including this past Wednesday. It wasn't just some sort of Super Bowl curse.
Many students have missed four days of school. Unfortunately, that seems to have teachers and administrators in a panic over the upcoming “TAKS” standardized testing that is taking place soon here in Texas… let the dysfunctions begin!
As Dr. Deming (Out of the Crisis), Brian Joiner (Fourth Generation Management), and Daniel Pink (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) have written about, measurement often leads to dysfunction, gaming, and suboptimization, especially when these measures are used for individual evaluation – punishment or rewards. This seems to be true in any sort of organization – pressure a nursing manager too much over any one performance measure and I'd guarantee dysfunctions will occur.
Dr. Deming emphasized that not everything that's important is necessarily measurable – and I think education often falls into that category. This is the polar opposite of the “if you can't measure it, you can't manage it” cliche' that is often wrongly attributed to Dr. Deming.
Alfie Kohn (check out my podcast with him here) takes a very strong position that grades and scores are harmful in books including Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes.
From a practical standpoint, I have a number of teachers in my family – I know they are pressured to “teach to the test” and that the scores on these state tests often take priority over more important learning. That seems to be the case here in Texas.
Case in point are all of the news articles talking about how teachers need to make up for these four lost school days and they are panicking to get kids ready for the tests.
From the Dallas Morning News (“Dallas-Fort Worth teachers scramble to make up lost lessons before state exams begin“):
Some teachers have begun looking at ways to make up the lessons, if possible, and may hold Saturday and after-school sessions.
“The people who are most freaked out right now are the writing teachers,” said Linda Price, a teacher at Sheffield Intermediate in north Dallas. Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams in writing, reading and English language arts are scheduled for March 1 for some grades.
Price said students normally prepare for the writing test with compositions â€” writing one per week leading up to test day. She said her students need more work, judging from rough drafts.
“They're looking horrible,” Price said. “We can't catch up in writing.”
So let's assume that the last four years have included a lot of “teaching to the test.” This is likely (if effective) inflating the scores each year, creating a baseline that doesn't reflect reality.
If they don't have as much time for teaching to the test this year, the scores will likely drop.
Would those lower test scores be ANY indication of:
- Our kids being dumber?
- Our kids getting an education that's worse than last year?
- Our teachers being less effective than last year?
- The curriculum being substandard?
I guess we will be able to quantify the impact of “teaching to the test” if the scores drop, but how is that helpful to society and our education system?
This all seems like a bunch of “muda” or waste. I managed to get a GREAT public school education in my hometown of Livonia Michigan without there being so much emphasis on standardized tests. Yes, I remember taking a few of these, even going back to 2nd grade. Do more of these standardized tests mean better education? I'd be hard pressed to believe it.
Are many teachers being unfairly rewarded or punished based on these scores? That I would believe.
Last week's panic was about there not being enough seats at Cowboys Stadium (seats < tickets = lawsuits). This week the panic is about not having enough time to teach to the test. I'm not sure which is more embarrassing.
Final thought – Another artificial “test” in healthcare includes things like Joint Commission inspections. I'm sure that some hospital here is panicking because they lost preparation time, if some employees couldn't make it to work and there's now less time to move all of the stuff out of the hallways that's normally stored there when it shouldn't be! Teach to the test… make things look good for the Joint Commission. This doesn't really improve the system. Do you see dysfunctions like this in your workplace? Are you distracted from providing customer value because of these sorts of things?
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