Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Value of National Testing

     Chapter tests, unit tests, and final exams have been around (seemingly) forever.  These are tests that happen in school.  But what about the nationwide tests that students take?  I'm talking about the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), and the new PARCC and Smarter Balance tests.  What is the value of these tests?

     Let's start with the SAT and ACT, because most people know about these tests.  The purpose of the SAT test is to reliably predict an individual's success in their first year of college (see report here); and the SAT does a pretty good job of doing this--particularly for mathematics.  The stated purpose of the ACT is:

     Your ACT composite score, together with your high school grades, indicates how prepared you are for   college. In addition, the scores from the various sections of the ACT will help your college place you in the right classes, matching your skills with course requirements. (citation)

     Of course, aside from these "official purposes", we know that lots of people attribute much more importance to these two tests.  And, to be fair, some colleges have "cut-off" scores; if you score below a cut-off score, then you won't be considered for admission.  Still, my feeling has always been that there are plenty of colleges in the U.S. and unless you are determined to go "ivy league", there is a college out there ready to accept your money...uh...uh...I accept you.  Also, I believe that the SAT/ACT do a good job of showing what you know and are able to do.  Let's face it, a lot of students are good at "playing school".  They know what to do to get an "A".  But some student get an "A" because they understand the material and other students get an "A" because they are good at "playing school".  The SAT/ACT helps to separate these two groups of students.

     The NAEP, on the other hand, probably does the best job in determining what our nation's student know and are able to do.  This test is given to a sample of students in every state.  Colleges don't look at this test and parents don't get individual scores from this test--so it is a "low-stakes" test.  Students don't feel external pressure to do well on this test and nobody hires a tutor to do better on this test.  The PARCC and the Smarter Balanced tests--the new tests to be used to assess the Common Core standards--are supposed to be more like the NAEP tests.  Colleges aren't asking "What did you get on your PARCC Algebra 2 test?" yet, but I believe they will in the coming years.

     The value of these new tests are really the same as the value of the old SAT/ACT tests; they are supposed to show what students have actually learned in school.  We have to brace ourselves for students who get good grades in school and bad grades on PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  It will happen to the students who are good at "playing school" but not so good at learning.

     Students who do well on these tests should do well in their college courses.  Students who don't do too well will know where they stand and will enter college (I think) with a better idea of what they need to do to succeed.

     Sometimes I worry that the reason more than 50% of students that start college and never finish is because their teachers and school counselors and parents made them feel that their good grades in high school meant that they would be academically successful in college.  Their PARCC and Smarter Balanced grades may give them a different point of view--and that's OK.

     The value of national tests is an unbiased view of a student's academic ability.

Public Schools and Choice

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