Sunday, August 7, 2011

A word about Matt Damon's Attack on Testing

About a week ago, the media paid quite a bit of attention to a passionate speech in support of public school teachers by actor Matt Damon.  The speech included an attack on the overuse of standardized tests, as follows:
I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.
I've been writing a bit about the widening scope of the standardized testing scandals in which individual schools and even school districts have been alleged to have produced quantum leaps in standardized testing scores through organized cheating by some of the educators themselves.  And in the course of those posts, I've made it clear that I believe in regular use of standardized testing as an important component in teaching and learning.   At the same time, Damon's emotional attack on overuse of testing resonates.   The best teachers do make learning exciting for its own sake.  The best teachers don't engage in "silly drill and kill nonsense" and the best teachers do approach children "like an individual puzzle."   How does one harmonize the truth in Damon's argument with a belief that standardized testing is important?

I think we have to recognize that we don't have to choose between the folks who claim that standardized testing will transform public education through a system sanction and rewards, on the one hand, and the folks who seem to want to drive standardized testing out of education altogether.   Standardized testing --- like the NWEA progress based testing -- provides data that can be used to approach each child "like an individual puzzle."    These new testing systems actually adjust the difficulty of the test to the level of the student, automatically, as the student answers questions.  They provide individualized scaled scores that provide information to the teacher on where the student is struggling.  They reward the student and teacher for the amount of progress.   As we get more sophisticated in the use of these tests, the hope is that educators will become more and more sophisticated in using the results of these tests to help each student progress.

Standardized testing also provides no-nonsense information for parents.   Instead of telling a parent, "Mary is such a hard worker,"  properly read, these tests tell a parent exactly where a student stands on the important skills of reading and math.   If a student is not progressing, a parent finds out immediately, instead of finding out in 8th or 9th grade, when it is way to late to develop a remediation plan.  

Part of the fear of standardized testing is that testing will be used improperly to rate teachers, not based on the quality of their teaching, but on the preparation and intellect of the particular students who happen to be assigned to her classroom.   This issue is not unique to education.     A hospital that handles the most difficult cases fears that ratings based on outcomes may wrongly suggest that the hospital isn't as good as a hospital that  specializes in less difficult cases.  In education it has become customary for school districts serving exclusive neighborhoods with low poverty populations, few immigrants, and few first-generation students, to boast that "our test scores are really high."   Yet, we all know that the most important factor in determining the test scores of students at the end of the year is the test scores that they had at the beginning.  When I taught two classes of the same subject, one after another, my class of high fliers way out performed my other class, even though I worked just as hard to help both classes excel.

The strength of progress-based testing is precisely that it focuses on the progress that the individual student has made.  Properly used, progress based testing rewards a teacher for moving a student a year (or more) ahead, whether the student started behind or ahead at the beginning of the year.

Teachers understandably fear that their evaluations, and perhaps their continued employment, will depend not on their effectiveness, but on a political process that assigns students to their classroom.   This is a legitimate fear, but the solution is not to wage a war on standardized testing, but to use testing appropriately.  The primary purpose of standardized testing is to help teachers do their job better.  Standardized testing like the NWEA can do that by providing meaningful data to teachers and administrators and parents that tell them how well students are learning.  If used wisely, that information can be an invaluable tool in public education.

Prior posts and links on testing
NWEA Provides Window on Student Achievement

Using NWEA for Accountability
RITS, NWEA and Progress Based Testing
Testing Scandals I
the Notebook
Editorial in USA today
National Center for Fair and Open Testing 
Washington Post  article
Los Angeles Charters Accused of Cheating Closed
Testing Scandals II


  1. Do you mind if I share this on facebook? I doubt it would go very far, but I occasionally have discussions with people about standardized testing, and this is a well stated case for a moderate approach.

    (BTW, I'm Lynn's stepson's wife, and Lynn pointed this post out to me.)

  2. No problem. Feel free to share all you like.


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