"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Standardized Testing versus "High-Stakes" Standardized Testing

My son is currently in first grade. During last year in kindergarten as well as this year, my wife and I sat down with his teacher to discuss his progress in school. There are no numerical grades yet at these levels of primary education in the United States. There are no numerical scores in my son's report card. These numbers usually begin to appear only after grade 3. The discussion with my son's teacher takes a significant amount of time as we go over various skills and competencies. The meeting basically informs us of where our son currently stands and warns us ahead of time if there is an area that warrants special attention. The absence of numerical grades or percentages, however, does not mean that our son has not been taking exams. He has been. And he does get a number that represents the percentage of the questions he answered correctly. These are "standardized exams", in a sense that the scores of my son in this exam can be compared against scores of other children. The questions are standard, but the results are "individualized". This is an appropriate description since the exam is used for formative assessment. Assessments are important since these inform the student, the parents and the teacher of where the student currently stands. Of course, the teacher has been making assessments on a regular basis, keeping track of the progress of each student, applying other methods of assessment outside of formal exams. We, as parents, likewise do the same. Thus, the meeting with my son's teacher is not a one-way discussion since we do compare notes while we assess our son's academic progress. The standardized exam is there to ensure that we have some objectivity in making these assessments. 

Before one develops a great distaste against standardized testing, one must keep in mind that there is a huge difference between standardized testing and "high-stakes" standardized testing. The addition of "high-stakes" changes standardized testing dramatically. How one uses, regards or responds to standardized testing makes a world of difference. There is nothing inherently wrong in giving exams to students except when the exam is testing the pupils on the wrong material but even in this case, it is not the fault of the exam. The fault here lies solely on the one who is administering the exam. When an exam is appropriate, it is a good assessment tool. Its primary usefulness is to guide future action.

When one reads that the top education country in the world, Finland, does not have "high-stakes" standardized testing, one must keep in mind "high-stakes" because that holds the true difference. Amanda Ripley of NBC News correctly notes the wrong impression of US education pundit Diane Ravitsch in "Testing Around the World":
...“Finland has no standardized testing at all,” edu-pundit Diane Ravitch said at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. “They don’t do year-to-year testing. No high-performing nation in the world does year-to-year testing.” 
Doesn’t that sound lovely? Imagine: a mythical land of reindeer, lingonberries and test-free schools. But is it actually true? Do the world’s top-performing school systems disdain standardized tests - and is that part of what makes them great? 
I spent the past year visiting and studying these schools, interviewing teachers, kids and parents. And what I found was much more interesting than what Ravitch says. 
First of all, let’s be clear: Finland does have standardized testing. They have had it for at least 159 years. They have less of it, for sure. (Which is not to suggest that they have less testing overall, but more on that later.) In fact, in every high-performing nation, tests are embedded in the wiring of schools - particularly in high schools. In the developed world, 76 percent of students attend high schools that use standardized tests, according to the OECD....
Amanda Ripley notes that one major difference between the US and Finland is that students feel the pressure of the standardized exams in Finland while in the US, teachers and school administrators are the ones who worry more. Students feel the pressure particularly on one standardized exam, the one they take after secondary education, which will decide where they would go next: a vocational school, polytechnic, or university. This is "high-stakes" for the students. In the US, the standardized exams can decide whether a school will be closed, teachers and principals will be fired, or schools get federal funding and teachers and principals receive bonuses. This is "high-stakes" for the educators. But this is just one of the major differences.

Katie A. Hendrickson, currently a graduate student in education and math instructor at Ohio University, published recently an article that examines Finland's testings in schools. The article, "Assessment in Finland: A Scholarly Reflection on One Country’s Use of Formative, Summative, and Evaluative Practices", is published in the peer reviewed journal, Mid-Western Educational Researcher:
The title of the article provides an overview of what exams are about in Finland. Exams serve three different objectives: Formative, Summative and Evaluative. Here are some excerpts from Hendrickson's article:

...Normative assessment takes place in early comprehensive school to identify students with possible learning disabilities and need for special education support (Kupiainen et al., 2009). Students are not placed in different classes by ability level; instead, all students are in the same classroom and an additional teacher is present in the classroom to assist struggling students (Grubb, 2007). First- and second-year students may participate in before- and after-school programs, and older students may be provided with special tutoring outside school hours (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2010). Students generally have only a half-hour of homework each night and do not wear school uniforms. Further, Finnish schools have a strict focus on learning, as they do not have tardy bells, athletic teams, marching bands, or school dances (Gamerman, 2008). School learning consists of courses in art, music, cooking, carpentry, and a long recess period, in addition to the typical language, history, mathematics, and science courses (Abrams, 2011)... 
...The assessment system of Finland is based around improving instruction, and the majority of the assessment is formative, or used to improve instruction and learning. Student assessment in Finland takes place in three arenas: within classroom practices, as the final comprehensive assessment of student progress at the culmination of basic education, and during the matriculation examination to serve as a criterion for college admission. Further, the national curriculum is evaluated through the help of an external evaluator and using data from a national standardized assessment, and teachers and schools use self-evaluation to improve education locally... 
...National standardized assessment takes place once per year with a selected sample of ninth grade students for the purpose of diagnosis and improvement of the national curriculum. Each year, a sample of approximately 100 schools is selected for national testing to evaluate the national curriculum. This standardized mathematics assessment is administered and evaluated by the National Board of Education (Kupiainen et al., 2009). However, school test scores are kept confidential to avoid ranking schools or teachers, and only national averages are released to the public (Valijarvi, 2004). The scores are used only to identify widespread weaknesses in the nation’s educational system and to improve the national policy or curriculum as needed (Grubb, 2007; von Zastrow, 2008)... 
...Finland takes a definitive stance toward both summative and formative assessment in its national curriculum. The United States has also taken a definitive stance toward national assessment, albeit in the opposite direction. Whereas Finland sees no need for high-stakes testing, the United States has pinned its hopes for improving education on widespread highstakes testing. The Finnish National Curriculum has fostered a supportive environment for the development of teacher professionalism and expertise, providing Finnish teachers with the freedom needed to make classroom and assessment decisions. On the other hand, teachers in the United States are subject to stringent requirements regarding curriculum and assessment. Policymakers in the United States might benefit from a consideration of the policy differences in Finland and the effect these policies may have on student performance. After all, if Finland is able to score so highly on international assessments with their hands-off policies, what does that mean for the rigid policies and high-stakes testing in the United States? 
Finland uses exams. And some of these exams are standardized. That should be made crystal clear. The major difference lies in how these exams are used. Assessments in Finland allow for students to develop metacognition, an awareness of how they learn, how they think, where they stand since these exams are not used as yardsticks but as guides. Assessments in Finland are used to evaluate the curriculum, not to rank schools, teachers or even the pupils. Assessments in Finland are used to inform the teachers if interventions are necessary or if a given teaching approach is working or not. The exams are mostly formative. Exams are not associated with prizes or penalties. This is the difference.

I would like to end with a statement from Daniel Koretz, professor of education at Harvard University and an expert on educational assessment and testing policy:
...The standards movement is based on the notion that the biggest impediment is the lack of standards and accountability. I don't think that is true. I think the lack of standards and accountability is significant but, in many of the schools that I have seen, I would not say that that is the biggest impediment to improved performance. If, for example, you have kids who are highly transient, who don't speak English, who come from dysfunctional homes, it's hard imagining that a better test is really going to solve the problem.

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