Thursday, April 8, 2010

What's Good About Standardized Tests: Free Toys and Candy

My daughter is taking the PSSAs this week (and next). Those are the all-important Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

You know, the ones that will make or break a school--thanks to NCLB's data-driven, ever-rising standards that fail to take into account ESL students, Special Ed or, um, anything relevant that might reasonably skew the stats.

My daughter is very bright, so I know she will help the school's scores. But, as I told her: the test isn't about the kids; it's about the school.

The school needs the kids to get in the upper echelon (or at least mid-range) of scores. It needs fewer kids each year to do poorly. Again, pay no mind to the quite-possible-fact that a recent influx of immigrants may have just moved here en masse. That's tough luck; no government bureaucrat will be paying attention to that.

(Side note: I certainly don't mind immigrants. My own relatives were 20th-century immigrants from Denmark and Ireland and Quebec. My point is only that NCLB is black and white and cruelly simplistic. It doesn't allow for the ever-changing, all-important gray areas of life.)

Schools in my town are desperate to have kids score well on the PSSAs. Apparently, the middle school is in dire straits due to the fact that it's a regional feeder school, with a wildly diverse student population. Instead of going up in scores, it has--abominations!--stayed the same or even dipped slightly from year to  year.

This means (irony of ironies) that, thanks to NCLB's punitive set-up, the school gets less money to work with and it is threatened with closure.

The truth is, however, that student populations are especially pesky when they're semi-urban and diverse. You just never know where those kids came from, now do you? You just can't rely on diverse groups of people to be on the same page, can you? So, you might think that NCLB standards would take this into account.

But no. That would make too much sense.

In the beleaguered, threatened middle school, there are drawings for iPods (my daughter and I agree that an iPhone would be more of an incentive) if students do well on the PSSAs. There isn't really much chance of actually winning the equipment (out of all the kids who score well, their names go into a bowl and ONE is picked), but it's exciting for the kids.

It's also depressing for the people who are thinking about how clearly desperate those teachers and administrators must be. Their jobs may actually be tied to the school's scores--and any teacher will tell you that's just crazy.

Teachers can no more control how students will do on one or two days of testing than they can predict the stock market or when the next tsunami will strike. Yes, teachers can try their best to prepare students, but that leads to other issues, such as Teaching to the Test and cutting of "non-essential" programs.

While it's not quite as thrilling as electronics, in the elementary schools there is FREE CANDY on test days.  My daughter was particularly psyched about this.

She didn't notice--until I pointed it out--that the candy is brain-enhancing gum and peppermints. Studies show people think better when they're sucking on mints or chewing it's chomp time when the test booklets are handed out, and "spit it out into this box" when the booklets are collected.

Again, all I can think about is that the schools are really freaking out about PSSAs.

So here's to you, Pennsylvania. I wish you the best in getting through this next week of testing (only the third or so full week this year, huh?).

I hope Costco doesn't run out of Peppermint Lifesavers...or maybe we can send the extras to Arne Duncan and the team that's trying to revise NCLB.  Maybe some candy will help them all think better.


  1. The success of an educational program or pedagogy is one of the most difficult things to quantify. The State doesn't even want to THINK about "gray areas"; that will only make their jobs ridiculously difficult, instead of extremely difficult.

    American Education is in need of such widespread reform, it's dizzying to think about (ironically). And it doesn't help that those who fund public education more or less see it as a necessary expenditure, an expectation of the citizenry -- not something of actual value (i.e., something that can turn a profit).

    Dylan sang, "We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view." Well, in this case, we DON'T feel the same. At all. Education, when done right, is the nurtuting of minds -- raising curiosity, opening doors, empowering thought and creativity. Not regurgitating shared chunks of information from the book of cultural literacy. (Sh!t. Now my neck is starting to get red thinking about this. Best to stop here.)

    Check this out: an interview with Seth Godin on Education (some interesting thoughts here):


  2. I agree that it's basically impossible to determine exactly how well schools are doing...relying on test data is the (seemingly) easy way out.

    It is so ridiculously complicated that I actually think (and this is coming from someone who believes in government help when it comes to most things) schools should be left alone to do the best they can. Schools should be supported, not punished.

    Are we doing the best job we can for all kids? That's the question. How do we know?

    I just don't think that spending virtually all school time preparing kids for standardized tests is the "best" we can do.

    The purpose of education is to equip people to be able to think for themselves--not to spit back out what they think they are supposed to say. Also, education should inspire lifelong learning.Preparing for a few days' of testing definitely doesn't do that.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. "The purpose of education is to equip people to be able to think for themselves--not to spit back out what they think they are supposed to say. Also, education should inspire lifelong learning."


    Tackling the subject of Public Education eventually leads to peeling back the covers and seeing just how horribly we, as a society, treat our poor.

    The state of affairs in the Philly Public Schools -- just to provide one example -- is as horrible as it is embarrassing. Has been for decades. And no one raises a loud voice about it. These kids -- in classrooms of 30+ students and depleted resources, many with shambles of home lives -- are supposed to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and score well on standardized tests? Why? So their crap school can keep on doing a crap job with subpar funding, rather than struggling even more with sub-subpar funding?

    (Neck getting hot again. Time to go.)


  4. Agreed! Thank you! "Poor" and struggling schools need more money and resources, not less.

    I tutored a girl in Philly a few years ago who literally had read ONE book in her life (she was about 16). I mean that there was only one book she ever chose to read (she didn't do the school reading, as a matter of course) That blew my mind.

    What gets my neck hot (!) is the fact that education in general gets so little money out of the federal budget. Think of how many things get more attention than education. And yet--what is possibly more important?

  5. Well, we wouldn’t want to take any money away from important military programs.


  6. You're always on fire when you write about educational policy and NCLB. Keep it up!

  7. These tests do nothing but stress out and overtax the children. How repugnant that schools entice kids to their desks on test day by promising free candy. It's like giving a test animal a pellet so it performs better in the lab. Or, posed another way: not much different from what a creep in a car does outside a school, trying to lure children to talk to him. My kids will stay home next standardized test day.

  8. Well, you know it has to be distasteful or dodgy if they have to use candy to make it more enticing...