We are registered with a unique government-funded independent homeschool program that provides us with spending money, resources, and a great deal of support for our unschooling lifestyle. However, given that the money is provided by our Ministry of Education they do require that a few hoops be jumped through and one of them is that we participate in the Foundation Skills Assessment testing for Grade 4 and Grade 9 students. Daughter is 9 years old and therefore was required to complete the Grade 4 FSA test this year. We have just completed this process and I wanted to share my thoughts on the experience, and what I’ve learned (confirmed) about the value (or lack thereof) of standardized testing.
The reasons given for standardized testing are the same all over: some regulatory body wishes to assess the skill level of children in the school system in order to evaluate that system (see the previous link). Many people have argued that standardized tests are not an accurate reflection of what kids know, and that is just one of many problems with standardized testing. Yet our society clings to the belief that they are useful measures of student ability because, quite frankly, the whole design of our educational system – a mass production facility for churning out a standardized product – is set up in such a way as to leave this the only practical alternative.
I know what my kids know for the same reason you know whether your kid can tie her shoelaces – because you’ve seen them do it, day in and day out. That doesn’t apply to classrooms and school districts, where one teacher is in charge of the learning of 30 or more students. Which of the following learning models (see image below) does standardized testing apply to?
Well, I’ve long agreed with those who say standardized testing does not yield accurate information, but now I have the personal experience to prove it. Here are some examples we encountered during Daughter’s testing experience that demonstrate how poorly these tests reflect ability.
In the reading comprehension part of the test, students were given multiple choice questions. One in particular struck me as a perfect example of how inaccurate these tests are at measuring what they claim to measure. The test question was [I’ve changed the question slightly so as not to disclose test information]: “what was Sally feeling when she saw Jill jumping rope?”. The story never actually says what Sally was feeling: of the four multiple choice answers given, not one of them appeared in the text. The child is therefore left to guess based on some clues in the story that, given my recent forays into the world of autism, I recognized as requiring the ability to understand and interpret non-verbal communication, particularly that relating to emotions and social situations. This is a very different skill set than being able to read text and comprehend what one is reading. Accordingly, Daughter had a hard time answering this question and was pretty ticked off that nowhere was this question specifically answered in the story. So much for being a reading comprehension test.
In another example, a short article was presented about a certain type of insect. My daughter loves insects and has studied them in-depth for years. She knows a vast deal about them, and this particular insect happens to be one of her favourites. As she went through the multiple-choice questions she pointed out that, in some cases, there was more than one correct answer (she was right). I had to explain to her that the test-markers were not interested in her knowledge of insects, they just wanted her to give the answer that was stated in the story. In other words, this isn’t about what is accurate or true, this is about regurgitating information that has just been fed to you. This bothered her, and it bothered me too. In one of the essays I linked to above, it states that standardized testing tends to favour “shallow thinkers” who are more interested in “getting it right” than thinking deeply about the subject. Here was a perfect example of that.
The math section of the test was met with great anxiety. Daughter, who at age 5 was readily solving algebraic equations and had a fundamental understanding of the concept of sets of numbers as they related to multiplication, has now decided that she is “dumb” at math and that she hates math. There was a question that asked how many combinations of objects could be formed to yield a certain number of parts. To my (and her) surprise, she began figuring out the different combinations and writing them down. As she worked through the problem I could see how she was going about it, and I was tickled because it is exactly how I would have solved it. The second part asked to show the method by which you came to the answers. I was stumped, and so was Daughter. In fact, she got very upset and kept saying it didn’t make sense and that she didn’t understand what they meant. She had a very hard time putting her process into words because, like me, she is a visual thinker and the process for both of us involved “seeing” mental images and working with different combinations of those images sequentially in our minds. In fact, if one paid attention to the sequence of her answers one could see the process right there. But chances are she is going to lose marks because she couldn’t explain in two short sentences the mental process that had seemed so intuitive to her. Once again I had to ask myself what, exactly, these tests are measuring? Is this a test of math understanding and ability? Or is this a test of putting into words a thought process that may not be verbal for everybody? This type of testing completely dismisses what we know about different learning styles among individuals.
There is a forum on our homeschool program’s website for parents to discuss their experiences with administering these tests to their children. Several people wrote of their child experiencing test anxiety. From a purely anecdotal perspective, it seems to me that this was far more common among kids in our program than, say, children in a classroom. And of course it is no wonder. Kids in school have been taught to take tests from day one. By grade 4 they are experts at test-taking. Meanwhile, the children in our program (the majority of whom are unschooled) have not been taught how to take tests. In fact, for many of them (like my daughter) this was their first experience with testing (other than those tests and quizzes they might do themselves for fun, as Daughter has done for years). According to the parent reports, several learners experienced difficulties either understanding or answering the questions – not because they lacked the skills to do so, but because they lacked “test-taking skills”. It’s hard to really understand what this means until you watch your child doing such a test, then it becomes clear. The results of standardized testing, to a significant extent, represent the ability of kids to write a test. I’m pretty certain that’s not what the Ministry of Education is going for with these things (some readers may argue that test-taking is an important skill; I disagree, but that’s a topic for another post).
Regardless of how she performs on these tests I already know this about my Daughter: she is a prolific writer. Over the years she has taken pride in developing her own unique style of printing (I call it her “font”); it’s lovely to look at and very legible. I’ve seen her write pages of text as she is working out a story, or writing a biography for one of her story characters, or illustrating a comic, or in dozens of other situations in which she finds a reason to write. I know that she was an early and advanced reader and to this day enjoys a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction. We have many wonderful discussions about the books she reads, and she explores the stories, the characters, the concepts, and the deeper meanings through various multimedia resources. The Ministry will never know how lovely her printing is, nor what level her spelling skills are at because her anxiety issues required me to scribe for her. Had I insisted she write her essay out herself, they would never have known what a wonderful storyteller she is, what a rich vocabulary she possesses, or how logical are her arguments in defense of an idea. What they got was certainly not the best example of her abilities since she found the subject matter less-than-inspiring and really wasn’t driven to create by any real interest or passion for the subject.
Our program works hard to make these tests a meaningful exercise for the learners and their parents. But what we got out of the process was not all that consistent with what the Ministry expects to get out of it. Personally, I’m fine with that.