One and a Half Hands Tied – Perils of Standardised Tests

The release of the OECD PISA results this week into Financial Literacy sent Australian educators into raptures of joy like a Brazilian semi final crowd on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro.  Australia, being 4th in their league table would often give politicians a self congratulatory pat on the back, but in my case I always question the validity and reliability of the measure and the intrinsic value of what they are trying to measure.

In the same way two days ago, I sat in the Harvard Longfellow Hall for the graveyard shift in the afternoon and spent a couple of hours listening to a session about interim testing. Many of you know my views about testing and standardised testing and their contribution to making a difference. Even researcher John Hattie placed a very low effect size on testing and a higher effect size on feedback.

Having said that, I will be quite provocative in saying that standardised testing is an albatross on many good American school leaders as scores in some states are linked to their accountability, performance appraisal and eventually their salary and career. In extreme cases, school closures take place or takeovers by private enterprises. It’s saddens me to listen to outstanding American colleagues speak about the various differences between US States and within school districts about the regime of standardised testing that follows students from year to year and the impact of time it takes to prepare students for the tasks in lieu of teachers having a greater opportunity to be creative, innovative and researchers in their schools with freedom to fail as part of developing new pedagogies.

During my time at Harvard, I have met so many wonderful public school principals who are serving in what is called Title 1 schools, where students come from low socio-economic levels and in public eduction. Title 1 school status means they are given federal government funding via the state and eventually the District Boards under the “No Child left Behind” policy. The funding is tied to the schools making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on statewide standardised tests and determined by the states. Schools that failed to achieve AYP in two consecutive years are placed on the “in need of improvement” category and must offer transfer to their students and families to other schools as their first measure and  eventually tutoring. By the fourth year, if AYP hasn’t been achieved, then staff can be dismissed, the school day and year can be extended and  the curriculum replaced. However, the situation becomes more draconian if AYP is not achieved beyond four years with plans for the possible takeover of the public school by charter or outside entity and the replacement of all staff including the principal.

The No child left behind policy is having a major effect by placing immense pressure on school principals and their staff to reach the AYP on standardised tests that have questionable values about their reliability and validity. In Australia, our experience is that it takes time to turn around a school with layers of complexities and that it cannot be solely measured on a standardised test.

Successful schools are not measured by a student standardised test scores but by the level of community confidence and the level of student engagement on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that schools are free from data. Instead, data can come from, a range of sources but predominantly school generated through consistency of teacher judgement and the collaborative nature of teachers in programming, assessment and evaluation in team situations. School improvement is manifested in the moral imperative by school principals and teachers to provide the inspiration for students to achieve their aspirations.

The level of success is dependent on the complexity of schools. In America, there seems to be no credit provided to principals or teachers in overcoming some the challenge of poverty and in some cases, a community culture of high homelessness, violence, drug addiction and generations of unemployment. It is here that principals and teachers become the most resilient and provide the very best education possible within their available resources. However, the task is made even more difficult through standardised testing that doesn’t take into account all the complexities of schools.

In global education at the moment, there seems to be juxtaposed ideologies in teaching students knowledge and skills for living and working in the C21st compared to what many standardised tests actually measures. No standardised tests at the moment measures students skills in creating and designing, solving authentic local and global problems, collaboration and being self regulated learners who can access information using technology.

A key issue in Australia is that through globalisation, many jobs are now being off shored or automated. This is happening in the United States as well as I have seen many abandon buildings that were once thriving businesses.

From my travels, I have learnt that the producers of the standardised tests are also the marketers and in some cases the authors of preparation material and teaching programs associated with the tests themselves. In other words, companies stand to gain a financial reward in these tests – a conflict of interest. In 2011-12, $US1.5B was spent on standardised tests to 2011-2012 of $US3.6B. This funding could certainly be better utilised to address the resourcing of schools at a local level rather than profit the publishers.

To complicate the matter in the US, many District Boards set the policies and directions of schools, allocate and approve budgets and hire the superintendent to oversee the progress of schools. These boards are often comprised of lay people who more often than not, have experiences and qualifications outside the school education field, and quite distant from the school themselves. Underneath the Boards, some districts have layers of bureaucracies. In other words, the principal is accountable to a board of lay people and very little scope for authority and autonomy in making decisions associated with the daily teaching and learning depending on their school district. Some school boards require schools in their district to conduct standardised tests every 6 weeks in preparation for the state standardised tests.

Yesterday, I sat and had lunch with a young West Coast elementary public school school principal and he had taken out insurance just in case of litigation. He can be sued if something goes wrong rather than the state. However the teachers in his school are covered by the union. Another elementary principal told me  how she commits and spends her budget each year quickly for fear of the district school board requesting funding back and her funding was cut back dramatically for students with disabilities.

I cannot fathom any other professional field that has such a structure where external people set the directions for students. It demeans the Principal and teachers as the education expertise and reduces their authority and autonomy to make decisions based on contextualised needs.  American school leaders have told me that no other profession have similar boards made up of lay people.

Finally, I have  total admiration for my American school principal leaders who have an immense level of knowledge, talent and resilience to work in an atmosphere of  standardised testing, not by their doing, while managing the daily complexities of their school. It is here that my learning throughout the week has been enriched by the global connections that I have made, and by knowing there’s so many good school leaders out there making a fundamental difference to the lives of students each day despite having one and a half hands tied behind their back and the extraordinary lengths and programs that they implement to ensure students receive the

For all the shortcomings of our own Australian Standardised test called the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), I am pleased that NSW public school principals have the authority to make curriculum and budgetary decisions based on the needs of the students without the same standardised testing being an albatross, and that we are not encouraged to teach to the test each year.




4 thoughts on “One and a Half Hands Tied – Perils of Standardised Tests

  1. Your staff is very blessed to have such an insightful and creative leader. So fortunate to have shared this LEV experience with you.

  2. Really enjoying your blogs John. Very insightful. Great opportunity to raise discussion on areas explored during get the week. Thanks for your honesty and sharing your thoughts. Creating great perspectives for us all 😊

  3. I read with head shaking back and forth yet I already knew of this ‘system’ in many areas of US. Thanks again, John, for the insights and views you are providing as a result of your observations, touring and learning. We have it “good” don’t we? Denyse

  4. This post hit home pretty strongly in my own reflections on the state of ed and challenges for many. Thanks again for sharing.

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