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Debunking Standards Issue #5: Tests Matter; Standards Do Not

This and next week I am raising objections to the idea that new standards — particularly new national standards — are worth the attention they get. It is ridiculous to think that they can be a meaningful lever of broad educational improvement. In fact, I do not think that they can have any significant impact at all.

Problem #5: Tests Matter; Standards Do Not

As much as they may hate them, teachers do respond to tests. Not always well or in good faith, but teachers and schools feel the pressure of high stakes and public reported tests.

Tests, of course, are usually supposed to be based on standards. State tests are specifically supposed to be based on state standards. State tests might, in the future, be based on the Common Core standards.

But that’s not really true, not exactly. You see, tests only include the standards that we know how to test and are capable of testing relatively cheaply.

The recent draft of the Common Core ELA standards actually begins, “A crucial factor in readiness for college and careers is students’ ability to comprehend complex texts independently.” However, psychometric requirements for reliability, combined with reasonable limits on the time and money it costs to take an exam, prevent the inclusion of complex texts if only because text length is an issue. Later, the draft says, “Students must be able to revisit and make improvements to a piece of their writing over multiple drafts when circumstances encourage or require it.” There is also a whole section for “Speaking and Listening.” Does anyone expect that that standardized tests based upon the Common Core standards will include a speaking section or will include students’ ability to revise their own work?

And so, even if tests do a good job of evaluating students on the standards that they attempt to include, they do not actually represent the larger set of standards fairly. Moreover, in the absence of real advances in testing, I do not see how changes in the standards will lead to changes in the tests. Test developers will continue to test what they know how to test, regardless of what the standards say or how they have been changed.

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Next: Problem #6 — Local Control

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