Back to School II: It's Testing Time Again

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, September 25, 1998

Public Radio listeners know that in Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average. However, if all the children there are above average, then an equal number of children somewhere else are below average.

With a wife who teaches fifth grade in Bridgeport, and a son-in-law who teaches seventh grade in Woodbury, I often hear more than I thought I'd ever need to know about what's going on in our schools.

In Bridgeport, the Integrated Reading and Language Arts Curriculum states as its first goal that all students will score "at or above the 50th percentile on a norm-referenced test." In other words: All Bridgeport 5th graders will be average or above.

"What's a norm-referenced test?" listeners may well ask. The Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) given to fourth, sixth and eighth graders, the pre-CMT, given to third, fifth and seventh graders and the Scholastic Aptitude Test used for college entrance are all norm-referenced. These are tests created to differentiate between students - to sort and rank them. The tests are carefully designed so that a graph of the scores produces a bell-shaped curve. Most children should score at the top of the curve, which is average: 50% or grade level. By design, then, as many children must score below 50% as above it.

This means that if one year the average score is in the 60th percentile, the test will be made more difficult to bring the average down. All towns and Boards of Education aspire to be just like Lake Wobegon, that is, to have their students be above average. However, norm-referenced tests are designed so that half the kids will fail.

Standards and testing drive education today. The talk about tests makes it seem as if they exist to determine if students have mastered certain academic competencies, but in reality, the test is designed so that half the children won't succeed. Any question that all the students could answer would be replaced by a question that some couldn't answer, even if the original question reflected appropriate grade-level skills.

The tests have other problems, too. They are often culturally-, geographically- or linguistically-biased. Many questions are ambiguous, especially if prior knowledge or creative thinking is involved. The tests are kept top-secret, and there is no feedback to students or parents except a bar-graph which compares their performance to other students.

Everywhere throughout the state, the pressure is on. The kids haven't been back in school for a full month yet, and the goal is to quickly get them ready to take the tests next week. Students are learning how to "bubble-in" answers to multiple choice questions and how to write a short essay on an assigned topic according to a very specific formula. And then there's "cloze" practice (filling in the words from a list to complete a sentence) to measure degrees of reading power.

Most of the children in Woodbury couldn't score above average if students somewhere else didn't score below. That's where Bridgeport comes in. Yes, we believe every child can learn. But here are some of the facts.

When I saw Suzanne's computerized class list, I noticed that it said "capacity 25" at the top. In fact, the list contained 32 names. The union contract mandates fifth grade classes should be no greater than 30 students. Nevertheless, Suzanne has a smaller class than other teachers with as many as 34 kids. The real shame is that the administration sees class size as a contractual problem, rather than as an educational issue.

For eight of Suzanne's students, this is their first year in an English-speaking situation, in a new school. The Bridgeport administration pays substitute teachers so little that there are rarely enough of them. This not only often deprives the students of art or gym or music when those teachers are absent, it also deprives teachers of much-needed planning time.

There are many other problems connected to poverty and large bureaucracies which seem worse in the city.

The Connecticut Mastery Test is another abstraction in the educational system that exists for the benefit of the administration. These tests drive and shape the system, the curriculum and textbooks. However, teaching to the test clearly doesn't address the urgent needs of many children, especially in our cities.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.