Insane Incentives

Spring is in the air.

Standardized Test

Standardized Test (Photo credit: biologycorner)

At my son’s school, that means it’s time for the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests.  These are the standardized tests created by the No Child Left Behind Act that determine if a school is doing its job in educating children.  If too many kids have lousy scores, the school gets put on the “Adequate Yearly Progress” list and will eventually get penalized financially.

That creates a perverted incentive in the school system.   The main metric for a publicly-funded school’s success in Minnesota is the MCA.  If a school can churn out illiterate trench-diggers, they will get increased funding as long as the test scores are good.

For a full two weeks before this test, the school effectively shut down the education program to prepare for the MCA test.   That’s two weeks of studying for a set of standardized tests that focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic.  I’m a fan of schools prioritizing the three Rs over other subjects, but that’s not what they did.

They spent two weeks studying testing strategies, not the material contained in the test.

In science class, they covered essential scientific elements like “Answer all of the easy questions first, so you can go back and spend time on the hard ones later.”

Spanish class covered verb usage similar to “When the time is almost out on the test, answer ‘C’ for all of the hard questions you have left, que?

They weren’t being educated, they were learning the most effective way to solve a test to gain funding for next year.

For 2 weeks.

That’s not reading practice, or reviewing the parts of speech, or covering the necessary math skills.   It’s “This is a #2 pencil.  This is a circle.  Practice until lunch.”

Is this really what NCLB was trying to accomplish?   Standardized tests to measure school proficiency should be a surprise.   Let’s randomly send in test proctors to take over a school for a day and see what the kids have actually learned.

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    1. My son’s school begins KPREP testing (Kentucky’s version of the MCA) next week. Ever since spring break in April, he has brought home nothing but practice tests and questions. One math essay in particular was confusing for both of us; I emailed his teacher to let her know that he didn’t know how to answer the problem, let alone write an essay about it. She seriously replied to me, “It doesn’t matter if he knows how to do it or even if the answer is correct. He just needs to practice explaining why he did what he did.”

      How the heck is he supposed to explain WHY when he doesn’t even know what the problem is asking him to do? It makes me sick to think that learning how to work math problems is being pushed out the window in favor of responding the “right” way. I won’t write the novel that I’d like to write, but I’ll just say that NCLB is complete crap. My son is going into 9th grade in August and doesn’t even know how to work basic algebra problems because we’re too busy concentrating on a stupid test.

    2. I always think it is crazy how people are motivated. If they are given an incentive to beat a test, they will. If they are given an incentive to make sure students are well prepared and go to college, they will. I think the system is broken.

    3. These incentives are totally perverse, and typically penalize schools in poorer areas where students dont get as much learning outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, that’s how they are asking all teachers to teach as well – and the teachers I know dont like it one bit. If you teach kids about how to pass tests, you’ll get kids that can pass tests. Unfortunately, that doesnt really foster the type of critical thinking and analysis that is needed in the workforce.

    4. Wow. I remember the standardized tests from when I was in school, and we never studied for them in class. Instead, the teachers would pass out those little pearls of testing wisdom, like filling in C’s, but our classes would be for the most part uninterrupted. This is an eye-opener for me as we prepare for our first child.

    5. The standardized tests have been a consistent fixture for several decades in Illinois. It was a very similar process too, a week or two teaching kids how to take a test. With parents as teachers who cared, I’ve listened to them complain for years about the wasted time. What happened to teaching how to think and problem solve?

    6. Standardized tests to measure school proficiency should be a surprise. ” This is very ideal. I know the committee involved have considered this too.

      However, if we don’t prepare the mindset of the students for the exam, they have this shock or fear mechanism working at first. That means their mental capacity can be hindered by this emotions rather than what they really know. It’s a human nature. Also there are instructions that need to be followed during these exams. Now if the student is quite new to the procedure, much time might go wasted.

      Weighing all options, it’s a survival strategy.. I think (for the school funds).


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