December 13, 2013

Letters to the editor: Standardized test results prove little

A school board member and a teacher question how test results are used.

As chair of School Administrative District 60 (although expressing my personal opinion), I was troubled by the misleading and erroneous statements in the Washington Post article you published on the results of the recent Program for International Student Assessment tests (“U.S. students losing ground to Asian, European counterparts,” Dec. 3).

click image to enlarge

Japanese teenagers take college entrance exams at the University of Tokyo in January. Asian students had some of the highest scores on the international standardized PISA tests, but a reader questions the value of the tests “as some sort of measure of national strength.”

Kyodo News via The Associated Press

We must stop using these tests as some sort of measure of national strength. The idea that the U.S. score on a test of 15-year-olds is a judgment on the world’s most powerful nation is absurd.

The U.S. has always performed at or near the average, and yet we’ve had the world’s largest economy since the 1920s. The list of our national achievements, such as six manned round trips to the moon, only demonstrates the uselessness of tying these tests to national economic performance.

Comparing gross averages among groups is always difficult, and really can’t be done unless the differences between the groups are controlled for. Here, the key differences are the populations of students, national culture and poverty.

For example, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute notes that China has a special deal allowing Shanghai – a city of elites – to be treated as an independent country.

And as another Post article (“Asians lead the globe on exams, but paying a price”) in the Dec. 5 edition describes, the top-performing Asian countries have national policies that make PISA scores a priority.

Finally, when one compares schools in other countries with U.S. schools having fewer than 10 percent of students receiving free- and reduced-price lunch, the U.S. students score first in reading and science, and fifth in math.

Clearly the past two decades of school reform (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) have failed. Maybe it’s time to stop listening to reformers and their silly comparisons, and get back to educating our children.

David Lentini

North Berwick

Dana Goldstein’s commentary about the Common Core (“The real problem with Common Core,” Dec. 1) raises some excellent questions about the standards’ ability to effectively represent all students’ best interests.

We all agree that our curriculum can be more rigorous, but the question we should be asking is, “Is implementing testing the best way to improve students’ educational experience?”

As a fifth-grade teacher of 26 years, I have seen the amount of time that we have for direct instruction and for student learning experiences be eroded by the addition of curriculum and more standardized testing. Several weeks of school each year are now consumed by various tests and by the preparation and practice for those tests.

Testing success has never been proven to ensure success in college or success in a future career. It is a somewhat narrow skill. More time spent learning new concepts and skills and practicing those skills as a part of a relevant and engaging learning experience would translate to better-prepared citizens.

Testing is not the only way to ensure more rigorous instruction and standards. Other approaches include:

Improving teacher education.

Raising the standards to enter the teaching profession.

Increasing the involvement of educators who actually work with children in the educational planning for our schools.

Focusing on the inequality of education in the schools of Maine.

Improving the professional standing of educators in our society.

Focusing on research that demonstrates what types of learning experiences are most developmentally appropriate for different age groups.

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