Test Scores: Feedback and Security

Test scores are a divisive topic. A vocal component of educators thinks standardized tests are the embodiment of all evil, while an equally vocal component of the public thinks tests are the ultimate answer to the most important questions of life. (I exaggerate, but the positions are almost that far apart.)

I don’t find either position plausible or useful.

This morning I reread a report I wrote in 1988 about a distance learning program for at-risk eight graders. Last week I read two novels from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. One idea from the two very different sources is, I think, relevant to the debate over standardized tests: scores—whether on standardized tests, sales reports, or NFL record books—are feedback to the person who gets them.

In the summer program intended to prevent kids from becoming high school dropouts, students reported the “best” parts of the program were math and English. Teachers reported students’ interest was highest for the social studies, science, and careers topics.

It struck me in 1988 that the reason students placed high value on the program components which didn’t particularly interest them was that those components offered students a way to determine how they were doing.  Their answer to the math problem was either right or wrong;  their paragraph either had six complete sentences (no fragments, comma splices or run-together sentences) or it did not. On the other hand, the topics that interested students didn’t offer them a clear way to assess their understanding. The right/wrong distinction functioned as a security blanket for them.

Mma Makutsi, the secretary/assistant detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, also has a security blanket based on test scores.  Mma Makutsi scored 97 percent, the highest score anyone ever earned at Botswana Secretarial College. Mma Makutsi is not good looking, well-off financially, or well-connected socially.  All her hopes of a better future hang on that 97 percent.

If educators want standardized tests to have less clout in the public arena, it seems to me they have to do a lot better job of building alternative feedback methods into the educational process.

Kids need other kinds of feedback (non-test kinds) regularly.

And so do their teachers and school administrators.

Photo credit: Scanning Test uploaded by lm913

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