Why I can be proud of my students’ high performance on a standardized test – and why I can’t.

I’m proud of my algebra class. They’re eighth graders taking ninth grade algebra for high school credit. On our district’s quarterly assessment last week, 21 out of 24, or 88%, passed. That’s well above the district’s average of 77%. When I finally checked the results, which I had put off because the kids thought they had performed badly, I was thrilled at the results. I posted on Facebook that even though I hate standardized testing, our outcome couldn’t help but make my day. The post got 33 likes, which is viral for my page.

On the one hand, I think their performance was fine and that I’m right to be proud. When I previewed the 27 question test, which has a very high ceiling of content, I counted about five questions that everyone would get right, about five that most would get right, and about five that maybe half would get right. The rest of the questions would probably be beyond their reach. The class average was 43% correct, which I’ll call a win. Interestingly, that’s lower than the district’s average of 48%.  A closer look at the data explains why. The 88% pass rate in my class was split 84% proficient and 4% highly proficient; overall, the districts split was 47% proficient and 30% highly proficient. So,whereas a passing student in another school typically had many more right answers than my passing students did, a student in my class had an better chance of passing at all.

But I think the other hand has more fingers. First, the bar to pass is ridiculously low: A student with nine correct answers, or 33%, is judged proficient, and one with 16, or 60%, correct is judged highly proficient. But it’s not the low cut scores that bother me, it’s the low number of questions. When I assess these students on a single concept, after a few days work, I’ll ask them 15 – 25 questions. So how can a 27-question assessment that covers multiple concepts taught over an entire quarter really measure their proficiency?

Second, on average my students completed the test in 38 minutes, compared to a district average of 49 minutes. You might say, “Hey, they’re smart and fast, too!”  But I drill into my students a concept I got from Living with Complexity by Donald A. Norman. He writes that complexity is a world state, but complicated is a mind state. So, if one spends the necessary time with a complex concept, it won’t seem so complicated. I can’t help but think that my kids gave up on a lot of complex problems that they could have gotten correct if they had spent more time on them. I count that as a loss.

Third, when I first wrote about my opposition to the Common Core I said that the tests are woefully ill-suited for both their idealized use, to guide instruction, and their actual use, to judge teachers and schools. So it’s hypocritical for me to celebrate a great performance, when I would have considered a poor performance invalid.

Nonetheless, celebrate I do, because just like nouveau riche beats no riche at all, an 88% pass rate beats no pass rate at all.

For more that I’ve written on testing and the Common Core, please read:

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