What Do Standardized Tests Really Measure?

Some book characters stick with a person for years. I wish I could tell you mine was a lofty, well-known Emma, Jane, or Beth and Amy Jo, or even Dorothy. No. The character who has haunted me since my days of student teaching, who still torments me, is Flossie the Flamingo.

Flossie was a character in a story I had to teach to a group of 2nd grade students who lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rochester, New York. As readers might expect, my students were predominantly black and brown. But all the students, including the white ones, lived in poverty. In fact, it was one of my white students who lived in abject poverty.

Flamingos are native to several places, including Florida. But, you won’t find flamingos in upstate New York where it snows. Not even indoors at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester. My student teaching happened long before the internet. So there I was, talking with students, using a 2D image of a bird that lived far away and had absolutely no bearing on their lives.

The semester after student teaching, I took a class titled The Teaching of Reading. The curmudgeon professor who taught the class made us sit in designated seats. Women had to wear dresses to class; men ties. Our assignments had to be submitted on specific colored index cards–mine was green–and we were all assigned a number. I guess he was modeling classroom management. Can I tell you how much fun it is to wear a dress from January to March in Geneseo, New York? And that year, it snowed two weeks before graduation in May! But I digress.

Dr. Curmudgeon also had us choose a presentation topic. Being me, always wanting to dance outside the box and push the boundaries, I chose IQ tests. And I chose that topic, in part, because of Flossie the Flamingo. There was a constant nagging question following me after having taught that story. Did IQ tests measure intelligence or experience? Were standard IQ test questions appropriate for students like the ones I had taught in Rochester?

I did my research. I argued that questions on IQ tests were biased when it came to testing children living in poverty, especially children of color. I even went so far as to ask my classmates to take an IQ test I had found which was biased towards black culture. Because yes, while we have the Black Lives Matter movement as a social media brand now, I was in high school during the rise of the Black Panther Party. So there were discussions in education then about what was and was not being taught, and tested, in what was then called Urban Education.

Well, Dr. Curmudgeon was not happy with me. He almost failed me on that assignment. I got out of the class with a B. But my hypothesis that IQ tests, and later other standardized tests, really tested the experiences of those in the dominant culture, and not those in non-dominant cultures, was forged in that class.

My experiences since my undergraduate days have only reinforced my proposed hypothesis. If anything, I am even more of an opponent of standardized tests and their use in public education. I actually lost a freelance writing job at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton because I dared asked one of the ETS gods: How do you know you’re testing intelligence?

After reading The Hidden Link Between Vision and Learning: Why Millions of Learning-Disabled Children Are Misdiagnosed by Wendy Beth Rosen, I realized that my own struggles with IQ tests stemmed from the fact that I was born with strabismus. And while my eyes were cosmetically aligned with surgery, they never teamed–meaning I never had binocular vision. People don’t see with their eyes; they see with their brain. The eyes are hunter/gatherers sending information to the brain to process. If the eyes don’t hunt and gather together, one can experience a multitude of visual challenges. Depth perception, for example: I have none. My family attend 3D movies without me.

Rosen lists twenty-two different skills which rely on binocular vision including things like Visual Motor Integration, Visual Sequential Memory, and Figure Ground. Essentially, binocular vision helps human beings function within their surroundings. And I can tell you from experience, when one has no binocular vision, it takes longer to read and understand a passage. It often means reading something more than once. It can also mean one doesn’t stand tall because the two eyes get different information about where the body is in space.

And by the way, those vision tests done in a pediatrician’s office or at school don’t measure whether or not a student’s eyes are hunting and gathering correctly. Those tests, done with what is called a Snellen Chart, just ensure that at 20 feet away from a chart you can see the letters clearly, hence having 20/20 vision.

As I write this, I have been asked to review two-year-old student test data for a specific elementary school. Two years ago, the students who were in that school didn’t score well on the English Language Arts Assessment. But I have no idea from looking at data percentages if those students even attend the school anymore. How can the state flag a school for not meeting benchmarks on two-year-old data?

I am supposed to find something that might help teachers help students improve. The only thing I see? The female students scored better than the male students; not surprising at this age of development. But as teacher rightly pointed out, maybe the system expects females to perform and so they do.

Otherwise, the data is really meaningless. It doesn’t tell me if the test questions need auditing because they measure experiences the test takers have never encountered. The data doesn’t tell me if kids have undiagnosed vision problems. The data doesn’t tell me if the kids were hungry on the day of the test. The data doesn’t tell me if the children might have some low-level health problem, like an infection. The data doesn’t tell me much of anything about the students who took the test two years ago, let alone what is going on with the students in the building today.

So what do standardized tests measure? Why do districts have to abdicate hours of instructional time to administer those tests? And the biggest question? Why is it so awfully important to make students, who have been trying to learn through a pandemic, take these tests this year?

I have no clue.

Maybe I should ask Flossie?

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