Book Cover

A mixed review for Koretz, here.   It is a helpful introduction to testing terms, and I am appreciative for my improved understanding of many terms commonly bandied about in testing– it is valuable to be more sophisticated about norm-referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests, standard deviations, standards-based reporting, and much more.  Not just definitions either, but the key issues, advantages, and disadvantages associated with each. Criterion-referencing has become so widespread, it is helpful to appreciation Koretz’s explanation of its fierce limitations.

At times, Koretz seems to be a bit too much an advocate, banging a drum a bit too insistently, on a small number of points, points with which I am sure many readers of this blog are already in sympathy.  Most importantly, but also most congruent with our biases, is his adamant advocacy against measuring schools exclusively by their standardized test score.   This blogger, who has given hundreds of school tours and has endlessly explained what prospective parents should be looking for, especially appreciates the following:

Start by reminding yourself that scores describe some of what students can do, but they don’t describe all they can do, and they don’t explain why they can or cannot do it.   Use scores as a starting point, and look for other evidence of school quality– ideally not just other aspects of students achievement but also the quality of instruction and other activities with the school.  And go look for yourself.  If students score well on math tests but appear bored to tears in math class, take their high scores with a grain of salt, because an aversion to mathematics will cost them later in life.

The book has so much to criticize about testing, it becomes a bit redundant, and the anticipation I built up for his concluding chapter, entitled “sensible uses of tests,” was not rewarded.   There are none, he almost seems to conclude.   Maybe one thing, he grudgingly acknowledges, “many teachers want diagnostic information about the relative strengths and weaknesses of their students’ performance.  (Am I more successfully teaching them to compute than to apply mathematics to problems?)”

On these issues, I am trying to find the right balancing act.  I believe that test scores ought to be an element of school evaluation, a small one, but not altogether ruled out.   And I am, regular readers know, especially interested in using “next-generation” testing for enhancing our students’ learning.  I have blogged before about my enthusiasm for CWRA and iSkills, for instance, and I am influenced by Tony Wagner’s endorsement of them.

I like them, these next generation tests, not just because of the measurement they will provide, but because of the stimulus they will provide us at our schools to teach more emphatically these 21st century skills.    This concept, though, is something Koretz seems to frown deeply upon.    What I would call is a value– “what gets measured gets done” (to cite Peters, I believe)– , Koretz would seem to label as the “tests worth teaching to” argument, which he denigrates as “nonsense.”  I think if you dig deeper you can find that he has some mixed appreciation for testing that represents concepts and skills more aligned with what we want kids to learn, but he gets, it seems to me, so caught up in hitting testing in general I think we are losing the baby with the bathwater.

But again, testing is a scourage of US education in an NCLB era, and this independent educator is spared the brunt of it.   It is helpful to have Koretz’s intelligence in the mix of this debate, trying to expose the extent to which AYP, for instance, is an emporer without clothes.

And there are terrific moments.   Facilitating curricular and pedagogical innovation by teachers is a core theme of mine (as is learning by trial and error) and Koretz wisely points out that any testing program which insists on accountability for annual improvement (on a straight-line) has negative unintended consequences:

Real improvements in instruction are often erratic. If a teacher recognizes that a technique for teaching a topic has not worked well, there is no guarantee that the first alternative he tries will be a good one, and even if it is, he may need to try it a few times to get it right.  It is hard to experiment with new methods that are promising but hold risk if you are expected [required!] to make constant gains in scores.