To test or not to test, that is the question

By Bill Pirkle, The Pirkle Report

As America’s school systems decline, as indicated by test scores on standardized tests, the reaction of those educators who are increasingly looking incompetent is to challenge the idea of testing.

The position of the teacher’s union — when the issue of testing teachers on material they are teaching as well as the principles of teaching — was that tests do not show what you really know about teaching and that teachers do more than teach, they inspire. (Given the dropout rate nationwide, it doesn’t sound like there is a lot of inspiration going on.)

The WASL, which indicates students are not learning and implies that teachers are not teaching, is under attack as a bad test by the teachers. That most students make good grades in school, but not so good on standardized tests, indicates that classroom tests are made easy so that students and parents will be happy — and it looks like the teachers are teaching successfully. This is called “grade inflation.”

Thus it is the standardized tests like the SAT and AP tests, which are made up by independent testers, that are the true indicators of successful teaching.

When I was in school, everyone had to take the SAT. Now only those kids who want to go to college have to take it, depending on the college. So by making the SAT optional, society has lost an indicator of school and teacher performance.

As schools continue to decline, our leaders realized something very important. Our society needs doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers and other professionals to keep society functioning. We are now forced to import these people through the H1-B visa program from other countries.

A brilliant idea was hit upon: Why don’t we separate the smart kids from the others and put them on a special learning tract in high school? This is called Advanced Placement, or AP. Thus the smart kids can take AP classes in many subjects. These are college level courses. These students then take the AP test for this subject, and some colleges will actually give credit for that course if the student scores high enough.

Thus we separate the seed corn from the rest, and prepare the seed corn for college, which will produce the professionals we need to run our country.

But the same ugly problem arises. What if the kids do poorly on the AP tests? Since only the smart kids get into the AP program, it can only indicate that the AP teachers failed to perform. Naturally, the teacher’s union will not like that indicator.

And the same solution to what the teacher’s union might call “the testing problem” is put forth again. Why not make the AP tests optional? That is to say that the bright kid can enroll in an AP course, but does not have to take the AP test. What a clever, albeit self-serving solution. The bright kids who plan to go to college will take the AP tests, the scores will be good and the implication will be that the AP teachers are doing a good job.

Well, judge for yourself. The AP tests are scored on levels of 1 to 5, with 5 being excellent. Last year at Federal Way High School, 62 students enrolled in the AP class on U.S. government; 22 students took the AP test on that subject; 5 students passed at a 3 (the minimum score required for college credit for a high school AP course); and 6 students passed at a 4 or 5. So 11 qualified for college credit (3, 4 or 5) out of 22 who took it. That’s 50 percent. This stat is nothing to write home about. Remember, these are the bright kids, or they would not have been in AP classes in the first place.

But what about the 40 students who did not take the test? How well would the teacher have looked if they all had to take the test? From this, we can see why the teacher’s union would not be a proponent of requiring AP students to take the AP tests. These teachers are also trying to eliminate a mandatory WASL. Apparently, teachers do not like tests unless they can make up the questions.

Requiring the AP student to take the AP tests if they take the AP courses is a decision that is made by the school board. It makes sense to require this since it will provide an indicator of AP program performance and specifically AP teacher performance.

Thus the battle lines are clearly drawn. On one side is the public whose kids are being educated with their tax dollars, and on the other is the teacher’s union, which is fighting any efforts to require standardized tests that may indicate teacher performance. Currently, teacher performance is measured by classroom tests that tend to be easier than standardized tests resulting in grade inflation. We know that grade inflation is real since we find math students who make As and Bs in class, yet do poorly on the math WASL. Thus the conclusion that the WASL is a bad test. But there is an equally logical conclusion that could be drawn — that the kids did not deserve the As and Bs they were getting in class.

Before you jump on the bandwagon that the math WASL is a bad test, be prepared to explain that if it is a bad test, why do at least half the kids pass it? It would seem to me that few students would pass a bad test.

So put pressure on the school board to make the AP tests a requirement for AP students in the future. Surely you want to know how well your tax dollars are being spent. Bellevue, the most mentioned school district in this state for excellence, even requires all students to take at least one AP class.

But beware. When AP tests are made mandatory for AP students and the scores indicate that few do well, the then only option of the teachers who are made to look bad will be to say that the AP tests are bad tests. We can call this the “WASL strategy.”

To test or not to test, that is the question.

Federal Way resident Bill Pirkle can be reached at bpirkle@zipcon.net.

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