Contributor Beth Srigley: Standardized Tests and Accountability

Grosse Pointe Woods, MI – Do you know how schools are determined to be “failing” or “achieving”?

It’s all about standardized test scores.

Here’s a hypothetical boy-taking-examfor you:
Let’s say you own a company that makes bolts. These bolts are used for a variety of purposes, on a variety of machines, in many different industries. In order to test whether the bolts are functioning, you perform certain tests in your company factory to ensure that they’re working correctly before selling them. Customers then buy the bolts and use them in whatever industry they work in. This part of the process is the real test – whether the bolts do what the customer wants them to do. Everyone’s happy, or they’re not. If the customer is happy, you’re happy and you stay in business. If the customer is unhappy and is repeatedly made unhappy, your bolt business fails.

Stay with me. This is really about education.

Things change: The government decides that it needs to make sure that your bolts are functioning properly. It comes in and decides to test the bolts using its own measures. Now remember that you make bolts for all different kinds of industries. They’re designed differently based on what the customer needs them for. But the government doesn’t understand bolts because it’s not their job to understand bolts. The government makes some fatal flaws in this process of testing your bolts, namely:

1. It performs the same test on all of the bolts, regardless of the bolts individual functions and specifications.

2. It compares the way the bolts stand up to the tests by comparing different TYPES of bolts to each other, even though the bolts are designed completely differently.

The problem is, government agencies don’t have the time, money, or expertise to know what kinds of tests they should run. They decide on a standardized test in order to streamline everything that they need to find out.

And your bolts fail. And your company fails and can no longer make the bolts. And your employees lose their jobs because they’re apparently not doing their jobs correctly. And your poor bolts aren’t allowed to go into the world and do their job – which they were doing fine at before this testing – because they failed the test.

Thus it is with standardized testing in public schools.

Each year, Juniors in high school are involved in high-stakes, three-day, one-shot tests that each student and the entire school community are judged on. But here’s the thing that most people don’t know: The junior class of 2014, for instance, is compared to the junior class of 2013 in order to tell if the class and school achieved or failed. This measure disregards the number of students in each class, the progress that each class made since coming to the school, the individual students who took the test and their socio-economic backgrounds, whether the students had breakfast that day or were abused by their guardian the night before. None of this matters in standardized testing because it can’t possibly matter. It’s too hard to consider all of these factors. Yet year after year, schools, teachers, students, and communities are judged based on three days in their lives. And standardized test scores DO NOT show the growth of individual students. If they did, you would see how a class did its freshman year compared to its sophomore year compared to its junior year – the same kids would be compared to their older, smarter selves. Instead, students’ growth is compared to OTHER students’ growth – a basically useless measure that shows nothing except that different kids performed differently on a different test.

For instance, here are 3 kids in the class of 2013:


Whoa! All those kids showed growth throughout their first 3 years of school! Good for them. But uh-oh…here comes the class of 2014:


Wait…they showed growth too – actually more growth than the class of 2013. That doesn’t matter, though: the only thing that matters is that junior year average. It went down, so the school is failing. The state intervenes and eventually forces a “turnaround plan” onto the school and the principal and half the staff are fired. What the state doesn’t know is that Jimmy has to take care of his 3 younger siblings every day and that the family doesn’t have enough to eat, but he improved by 8 points. The state doesn’t know that Linda’s mom works 3 jobs and never has time to read to her, but she improved 7 points. The school has failed.

This negative opinion on standardized testing is NOT strictly libertarian. It’s really just common sense. You can’t compare kids to each other in order to show growth. It makes no sense. Many people of all political beliefs have written extensively on the ridiculousness of this concept.

But there is one aspect of this that is a libertarian dilemma: We are beholden to the public which pays our salaries and runs our schools and supports our bonds; thus, we should have some legitimate way of reporting to them what’s going on in our schools, how we’re doing, if we are in fact doing what we say we’re doing. The libertarian teacher should WELCOME accountability, right? It’s no different than any other accountability measure that any publicly-funded agency should have to adhere to. However, here’s the problem: the measure is fundamentally flawed on so many levels. So the question this libertarian teachers asks is this: how do we let our taxpayers know how we’re doing if we don’t have standardized test scores?

I submit to you that it is possible, assuming that we have community-based schools where parents and stakeholders are a part of the functionality of the school. That community – not the state or federal government – pays for the schools and it has the only interest in how the kids are doing. School board satisfaction, an open-door policy, and the success beyond graduation are much better gauges of how a school is doing. Just like the bolts in the beginning hypothetical, the real test is how these kids are doing when they’re not kids anymore – when they’re in college and in the working world. Ultimately, the accountability is to the students themselves and the parents, and – on the level that it cares – the community that provided the education.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Beth Srigley is a high school English teacher in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. Follow Beth on Twitter: @MsBethMS