30 July 2014

How to do well on standardized school tests

An article at The Atlantic opines that knowledge per se is not the key factor:
This is a story about what happened when I tried to use big data to help repair my local public schools. I failed. And the reasons why I failed have everything to do with why the American system of standardized testing will never succeed. A few years ago, I started having trouble helping my son with his first-grade homework. I’m a data-journalism professor at Temple University, and when my son asked me for help on a worksheet one day, I ran into an epistemological dilemma. My own general knowledge (and the Internet) told me there were many possible “correct” answers. However, only one of these answers would get him full credit on the assignment...

In essence, I tried to game the third-grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the standardized test for my state. Along with a team of professional developers, I designed artificial-intelligence software to crunch the available data. I talked to teachers. I talked to students. I visited schools and sat through School Reform Commission meetings. After six months of this, I discovered that the test can be gamed. Not by using a beat-the-test strategy, but by a shockingly low-tech strategy: reading the textbook that contains the answers...

This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.
More at the link.


  1. When I was teaching, I learned from my students that most teachers did not give writing assignments, and those who did often did not read or comment on what the students had submitted. One student, an 11th grader, got his paper back from me, looked at my comments, then looked at me and asked, "Did you read this?" He proceeded to ask me questions about what he had written, because even my written comments had not convinced him that I had read it. That indicates a disastrous trend in education. Kids learn that they don't have to think, just memorize what they need to know for the test. It does not bode well for our nation's future.

    Granted, I taught in a minority district, of "at risk" children (read children of color), and teachers thought they could get away with that, as the parents wouldn't complain. Teachers in high-income districts would never get a way with that. And the amazing thing is that so many of the kids from my school and my district did go on to universities and do well--but only after remedial math and writing classes for most of them.

  2. True education prepares students to meet an solve problems, not regurgitation. What Barbwire describes is far too common, even in privileged schools. It will only worsen as teachers are judged by students test scores... which is in part why my wife -- who carefully grades and comments her students papers -- will retire this year after 38 years in the classroom.

    The other major factor is the lack of family culture that values education for more than a place to stick the kids for the day.

  3. I am a young teacher and I have read and commented on the work of all my students since day one. There will always be teachers who care and caring needs to be incentivized. We need to put our hands over policy and turn that table in favor of the interest of children.

  4. Of all the standardized tests I've taken (SAT I and II, ACT, GRE, PSAT, LSAT) none of them were nearly as unfair as the assessments given by my teachers. Teachers routinely marked kids off for being smart ("we know you can do better,") throw away assignments without reading them, give As on assignments that were never handed in because they like the kid, penalize hard workers for the laziness of their assigned group members, and lots lots more. Yes, this test may have been flawed; but I'd take it over a teacher's whim any day.


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