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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Standardised tests are dodgy

There's a link to this article about the idiocy of standardised testing flying around Facebook at present.  And yes, I agree: standardised tests are a form of idiocy.  I never met a standardised test yet that gave accurate assessments of ALL children's relative ability- yet governments want to judge both students and teachers by them, in order to make major, game-altering decisions to education? Give me a break. 

I have a few little anecdotes to share on this subject... you may find them enlightening too.

Before I went into the field of Early Childhood education, I spent a few years being a jack-of-all-trades. One of my jobs was marking statewide standardised Maths and English tests. I'm not supposed to say anything much about that- you get sworn to secrecy- but I can tell you one thing that probably isn't any secret to anyone who's ever marked exams at any level: for the English tests, we got quite a lot of blank answer booklets. I used to look at them and wonder what the story was behind each one.

Later during that period of my life, I took a job as a reading coach for the government. Reading assistance was provided to those 10-year-olds who'd scored at the absolute bottom of the heap in the standardised test, and I travelled from school to school holding intensive reading assistance sessions one-to-one with children who had been designated 'substandard' by the state on the basis of that single test.

(Of course 'substandard' isn't the word they used, but that's what they meant.)

I did meet a few children who couldn't read, one of whom had a significant brain injury (don't even ask me why the state saw fit to put him through eight weeks of intensive reading assistance- that is NOT what he needed).  But I also met Blake and River.

Dodgy Test Result #1

When I met 'Blake', my first impression was his absolute disdain for the whole process. He identified himself as 'too dumb to read that dumb stuff'. 

I offered him the starter set of coaching material, to test his starting ability, and he barely lifted his pencil. Yep, this was definitely one of those 'blank booklet' kids!  I started trying to give him some reading assistance, and he stared out the window silently, obviously bored beyond bearing and completely uncooperative.

Well, being Aunt Annie, I wasn't going to keep flogging a dead horse, so I discarded the government supplies and system with a thump (to wake him up) and started talking to the child instead.

"You're bored to death, aren't you?"


"Does reading bore you?"


"Tell me one thing that doesn't bore you. It can be anything you like."

"Bikes.  V8 Supercars."

(Wow- two for the price of one.)

We talked about these for the rest of the session, or perhaps I should say HE talked AT me for the rest of the session. (On those two subjects I got nothin'.) He was quite a fluent talker and seemed to know  a lot about his interests. No, not 'dumb'.

Feeling I'd seen a chink of light at the end of a tunnel full of concrete, I went home and started preparing some alternate coaching material based on the subject of 'things with loud motors and lots of speed'. (That involved a fair bit of research for me!! Thank heavens for the internet!!)  I used the same teaching activities, as required by The System- just different reading material to start with.

By the end of lesson two, I had a much more engaged child and (wonder of wonders) a completed and mostly correct comprehension sheet, based on a list of motorbike ads.  (Hardly blank booklet material, Blake!!) 

I'd also realised that he was dyslexic, and could only read one syllable before the text started jumping around on him.  When the text was interesting, he could overcome some problems through experience; 'Kaw' was enough in context for him  to read 'Kawasaki', and similarly 'Suz' allowed him to guess 'Suzuki'.  He did a lot of guessing when he was interested, and gave up when he wasn't.

Some eight weeks later (and with a lot more knowledge about everything from Harleys to Big Trucks) I printed off the final assessment sheet on coloured paper, after some weeks of getting Blake to read through a pink plastic shot glass I'd bought at the $2 shop. He got over 80%. I passed my findings on to his regular teacher.

How DARE the state tell this child he couldn't read??!  Yes, it was great that he (accidentally) got some of the help he needed due to the test- but it was iniquitous that he was placed in totally the wrong band of the statistics, giving him a label of 'dumb' which he quickly adopted as a shield.

Blake could actually read quite well once he was interested (there's a plug for interest-based curriculum!) and given appropriate aids, and with the help of the coloured background he'd even managed to read the very UNinteresting final test and answer the comprehension mostly correctly.

Blake, 1; standardised test, 0.

Dodgy Test Result #2

And then... there was River.  River came complete with a sympathetic look to me from the headmistress, and a warning from his class teacher that he was in the habit of throwing chairs when he got bored or irritated.

I gave him the starter test, and he didn't write a word on it. (Yep- another blank booklet candidate.)

I got him to read the first story in the coaching book, and he read it not only fluently and expressively, but with admirable grasp of sarcasm at its babyish tone.


Smelling a rat, I turned the story page over and asked him the comprehension questions verbally.  He snapped the (correct) answers back from memory, like I must be the biggest idiot in the world to even ask.

I cut to the chase. "River, WHY are you here?  You can read brilliantly.  You don't need reading help.  Why the blank test paper?"

He looked me in the eye for the first time, obviously quietly relieved to be 'unlabelled' as illiterate. "Because I can't write fast enough, so why bother?"

Oh, well done, Standardised Testing. You diagnosed a child who couldn't write as a child who couldn't read

River had had so many changes of teacher in his short school life that nobody had ever showed him how to hold the pencil correctly, or how to form letters. I watched him try to write his own name, starting with an inverted V and a circle on top for the capital R, with a hand so cramped with tension that he had to have a rest before going on.

Happy ending? Yup.  Eight weeks of WRITING lessons later, he got 96% for the final reading test- and was starting to settle down to some work in class too.  He never threw a chair at me, but he did call me some interesting names on the way to holding the pencil properly.  (Mostly I tell you the good stuff, and leave out the pain!) I've still got the little 'sorry' gift he made and gave me the week after he'd called me a particularly obscene name; I'd called his bluff by sending him back to class- he really enjoyed our lessons, but it became an experiment in boundaries from time to time.  That's what happens sometimes when a gifted kid gets overlooked for too long.

We ended up respecting each other's intellects. Yes, River was one very clever little boy who the state had labelled 'illiterate'. 

River 1, standardised test 0.

There are just so many levels on which standardised tests can fall down, and that's why teachers reject them.  To build a whole educational philosophy for a country on them is like building a skyscraper on sand- it might look nice and level to the untrained eye, but if you've ever worked with sand...


  1. These stories are why I want to be involved in the process. I'm not sure what that means yet but I MUST be involved in helping kids. Thanks Annie!

  2. I really enjoyed the coaching, Scott, for exactly that reason. :)

  3. GREAT article, Aunt Annie! Off to get this one floating around Facebook now too! :-)

    I work at a very expensive private school where I get free tuition for my own kids as a teacher there - but I refuse to put them in an education system where their worth is judged based on standardized tests. They go to public school.

  4. Ah, in this country you get tested no matter where you go to school, Anon. If you want to avoid the test you have to keep your child at home on testing day.

    But that only solves part of the problem; the way the results are used to judge teachers, schools and whole regions is completely iniquitous. Statisticians just grab the numbers to play their games with, and completely overlook what education is all about- filling the needs of the INDIVIDUAL within that child's personal context. Talk about comparing apples and oranges!!


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