The (other) dark side of standardized testing

Dan DiMaggio, professional standardized test-scorer, writes harrowingly in Monthly Review:

No matter at what pace scorers work, however, tests are not always scored with the utmost attentiveness. The work is mind numbing, so scorers have to invent ways to entertain themselves. The most common method seems to be staring blankly at the wall or into space for minutes at a time. But at work this year, I discovered that no one would notice if I just read news articles while scoring tests. So every night, while scoring from home, I would surf the Internet and cut and paste loads of articles—reports on Indian Maoists, scientific speculation on whether animals can be gay, critiques of standardized testing—into what typically came to be an eighty-page, single-spaced Word document. Then I would print it out and read it the next day while I was working at the scoring center. This was the only way to avoid going insane. I still managed to score at the average rate for the room and perform according to “quality” standards. While scoring from home, I routinely carry on three or four intense conversations on Gchat. This is the reality of test scoring.

The central assumption behind the push to link student test performance to teacher merit pay is that test scores accurately reflect student learning. We apparently need a system like this because we don’t trust teachers to fairly score their own students’ work. But we trust these guys.

Supplementary reading by Todd Farley:

One of the tests I scored had students read a passage about bicycle safety. They were then instructed to draw a poster that illustrated a rule that was indicated in the text. We would award one point for a poster that included a correct rule and zero for a drawing that did not.

The first poster I saw was a drawing of a young cyclist, a helmet tightly attached to his head, flying his bike over a canal filled with flaming oil, his two arms waving wildly in the air. I stared at the response for minutes. Was this a picture of a helmet-wearing child who understood the basic rules of bike safety? Or was it meant to portray a youngster killing himself on two wheels?

And the followup…

Since 1994, when I first got hired as a lowly temp for measly wages to spend mere seconds glancing at and scoring standardized tests, until the release of my non‐bestselling book last fall, I had steadfastly believed that large‐scale assessment was a lame measure of student learning that really only benefitted the multi‐national corporations paid millions upon millions upon millions of dollars to write and score the tests. I began to see the error of my ways last Thanksgiving, however, just as soon as my huge son popped from his mother’s womb, keening and wailing, demanding massive amounts of food, a closet full of clothing, and the assistance of various costly household staff (baby‐sitter, music teacher, test‐prep tutor, etc.). Only then, as my little boy first began his mantra of “more, more, more,” did I finally see standardized testing for what it really is: a growth industry.

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About Spherical Cow
I'm a trained cognitive scientist and education researcher currently working for an education non-profit. In my job, I translate findings from education research into classroom practice and observe and evaluate the results. I also help non-scientists understand what we can and cannot conclude from different data sets. I hope that increased awareness of quality research will improve the discourse and policymaking in education.

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