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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Making the Grades by Todd Farley

Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing IndustryAs a parent, one of the things that I think a lot about is school and the quality of my kid's education. The Pirate will be starting school this fall (THIS FALL!!!) and while I think the elementary schools in this area are ok, I have definitely heard horror stories about testing and grades and failing schools. In a conversation somewhere online (please don't ask where) I saw mention of the book Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry by Todd Farley.  It seemed like this would be a great way to find more out about how standardized testing was done and I requested it from the library.

Farley found his way into the field by chance. A local scoring center was hiring and it was a steady, indoor, good paying job, with no requirements so he took it. Over the next dozen years or so he worked his way up the ladder eventually writing tests and training without any real ambition to do so.  Farley eventually quit working in the industry to write his book, which exposes some of the behind the scene stuff.

As it turns out, while the questions asked are standard, the people scoring the tests aren't standard at all. They come from every background and every level of ambition and motivation, and every level of education. They might be high school grads or they might be marking time until law school. They might be hungover all morning and tipsy all afternoon. They might not speak English. Additionally,  all the scorers from any one question live in the same geographic location, so if your questions were scored in Iowa, you can expect the scorers to know Iowa slang and not be familiar with what a second grader in New Orleans might say.

It seems as though each question would have a standard "correct" answer, but this is not true. One of his examples is of a question that asks students to draw a picture of a bicycle safety rule, having just read a section explaining the rules. Students got one point for a correct drawing and zero points for an incorrect one. Seems clear, right? But what if the student drew a picture of a kid on a bike wearing a helmet but NOT holding the handlebars? Do they get the point for the helmet? What about the no hands thing?  Any answer on any question could have multiple similar answers that the individual scorer was responsible to judging for correctness.  Every effort is made to standardize the scorers responses, but because we are all human it is a near impossible task.

The book itself if full of example after example of how the system has very little to do with what the kids know as well as examples of how administrators think when designing the tests. It was a fascinating book, if a little bit poorly edited. By the end of it I felt that it was a little long for a full length book and could have been edited down to a long article, but I'm still glad I picked it up.  Did it help me to make any decisions about the state of my own children's education? No, but it does lend some weight to how seriously I take the reported scores of local schools.

How do you feel about standardized testing? Are you a fan of NCLB? Do you think that a schools score accurately reflects what the teachers teach the kids? Does the very idea of teaching to the test make you want to homeschool your children? What has been your experience with testing?

Making the Grades by Todd Farley
Polipoint Press
272 pages

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  1. Boy, what a hot topic this is! As the parent of a child who is in college, I have to say, I did not like standardized tests. The schools work the kids up over them, but I would tell my son to do his best and not to worry about it since the tests were to see how well the school was doing not how well he was doing. He always did well too.

    I felt some of the tests were a joke. He passed the high school exit exam at the beginning of the 10th grade. Does that mean everything he learned after that wasn't important?

    There's a good essay in What the Dog Saw about this topic.

  2. The book said that the tests mean exactly nothing. The scorers don't care if they get some wrong, they are only randomly double scored, etc. Basically, the scores mean nothing. But so many people put SO MUCH weight on the test scores of a school, including the budget committees that it's scary.

  3. Lisa,

    This seems like an interesting topic but I agree that I would rather read an article or series of articles instead of a book about standardized testing. I'm glad you read it for me... :) Personally, I think tests are needed, but it troubles me that, even though we attend some of the best public schools in our state, the elementary school teachers are teaching memorization (for the tests) rather than how to learn, think or problem solve. I am trying to take up the slack at home, but sometimes I wonder what they do all day. I have considered home schooling, but I don't know that I have the patience or discipline and I worry about the social and psychological impact.
    Anyway, it was really interesting to discover that the tests aren't all they're cracked up to be, especially for parents (like me) who have children that have markedly different testing abilities. Thanks! Kara

  4. I will have to add this book to my list. As a school librarian and former classroom teacher, I definitely have my thoughts about standardized tests. They certainly don't show the intelligence of someone like my brother who can build a computer from scratch. I also think that I tend to overanalyze answers...I could go on and on!

  5. Idaho in the last 6 years has implemented new mandatory tests that are absolutely ridiculous. The things that third graders are supposed to know is outrageous - like how to diagram a sentence or whatever, but it was crazy. I can't even remember all. I was shocked. If the students do poorly, teachers can get fired.

    Not all children are able to learn the same way or remember the same things. There will always be some students who will fail because of an undiagnosed learning disability or lack of ambition.

    There is a place for these tests. One - exposing a child to something different. Two - just to get a *general idea* of how the child is doing or what subject needs work.

    I am a home school advocate, but I also know some parents shouldn't teach their children. (God forbid and Heaven help the children!) There are some children who do better in school, rather than at home.

    For the most part, I think that children learn better and more at home. There are other places besides school where children can have social interaction with other children.

  6. I taught before and after standardized testing hit the world. Before testing, there were teachers who spent all year teaching birds, without a care in the world. After testing, there are teachers who spend the year in a worried frenzy.

    Which is better?

  7. As the parent of a high school student (9th) and an elementary school student (5th), I have very mixed feelings about standardized testing and I think every one of the commenters before me bring up great points-- all of which I agree with.

    My general opinion on standardized testing is that they are just ONE indicator of a child's knowledge or ability and should ONLY be used in conjunction with other assessments when determining a child's academic placement or progress and the tests certainly don't reveal the remarkable strengths some students possess that cannot be picked up on in a standardized test. (Like with Tina's brother in the comment above).

    As a parent, I do my best not to worry about standardized testing with my daughters and instead focus on encouraging them to always do their best in whatever they do and know they will succeed at wherever their talents and strengths lie.

    Unfortunately, standardized testing is the only way to compare student aptitude across the state and nation. Of course, there are many flaws in that comparison, but it can be a reasonable tool in finding the schools and or students who may be slipping through the cracks and therefore need help with improving basic skills.

    And yes, I have thought of homeschooling on many occasion (mostly when they were younger), but not because of standardized testing. Instead, we opted to send them to our town's public school, (which is ranked high in our state), and my husband and I fill in gaps here and there, and provide a little extra enrichment as well.

    There's so much to ponder as your little ones are about to start learning from someone other than you and your husband or other trusted family member or caregiver. It's a huge and scary leap to let someone else teach our children. Most of them do just fine, especially with parents who stay involved in their child's learning. In fact, I think parental involvement is one of the biggest influences on a child's academic success. If that's the case, I have the feeling Pirate and Bug will be more than just fine--they will excel!

  8. Oh my god, it just occurred to me that I will soon have to worry about these things. My oldest is starting in the fall as well. After I'm done commenting here, I will go cry into my cheerios. It's creeping up so fast. Like another commenter said, I'm glad you read the book for me! I think things might be different here, but not by much. Scary thoughts.

  9. Thanks for this review! I'm very interested in this topic but maybe I will try to find some articles online first to see if that will quench my thirst.


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