Our competitive American nature makes it difficult to be out of first place in the world for long. But that’s where we have been in education and we’re doing something about it legislatively. One of the hallmarks of the new national “No Child Left Behind” legislation, written to improve education, is the measurement of student academic achievement.
To fulfill this new mandate every State developed rigorous achievement standards and enlisted professional testing companies to prepare subject matter test questions. These tests purport to measure current status and learning growth that validates the States’ standards. Every student at specific grade levels is expected to complete these “standardized tests”.
By comparing baseline test data with tests that follow a period of teaching, growth is documented. In most cases this documentation takes the form of compiled test scores on a school-by-school basis. Those schools that underachieve are identified for corrective resources in hopes of improving achievement by the next test cycle.
This process of teaching and testing is a timeworn activity that assumes the student is responsible for learning, and is not a measure of the ability of teachers to impart knowledge. Apart from standardized testing, teachers are the authors of most classroom tests, pop quizzes, unit tests, and semester tests. Most of these amateur test authors use their test results to assign arbitrary values to a report card and permanent record. Little use has been made of modern technology to improve this teaching/learning/testing ancient ritual.
Apart from the classroom the precision of professional test writers has developed dramatically. Employed by major test preparation centers in Princeton, Iowa City and Palo Alto, these specialists produce almost all the questions used to determine the schools that are meeting standards and those that are not.
Test questions are now so precisely crafted that each one becomes a valuable test of learned knowledge. Each of the three Centers has compiled large databases of these questions that could easily produce unique boutique tests for classroom use, using the electronic internet capability.
Replacing amateur teacher tests with professional ones on an as-needed basis could add more precision to the teaching/learning process. The medical profession’s diagnosis/prescription model would then be more appropriate, and shift the burden for learning success to the teacher- the professional; and away from the student- the learning novice.
While some readers might think this sea change might take time to develop, the model for the procedure has been perfected for nearly 35 years. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was established to provide “the Nations report card”. Its results demonstrate what America’s students know and can do in common school subjects, over time.
For test efficiency, a simple premise was devised to gather and interpret test results in specific school subjects: Small samples of students were chosen from a large universe of schools. Each student is given a small number of questions from a large database covering the subject. The questions are a mix representing ones unique to the student and ones that others also answer. In this way, a group score is similar to one where all students answer all test questions, for the score. That’s how we do it now. The NAEP model takes far less time, is more precise, and can produce reports immediately.
Now, lets speculate how a teacher could use this technology to guide learning in a single classroom. At the end of a specific period of teaching, the teacher would electronically request enough mini-tests for each student in the classroom. Tests would be a mix of unique and duplicates covering the learning unit.
Following this shortened test period, answers would be electronically scored producing a test result for the classroom, along with diagnostic information regarding problem areas. Shared with the students, the teacher and her student team now have feedback for focusing teaching efforts.
By compiling these test results over the whole school, electronically, progress in all subject areas could be observed and documented for administrative decision making, as required by the new Education law.
Professional test centers would reduce revenue from printed test and scoring services, but would probably enhance their income stream from new services to teachers directly.
Local schools testing costs would reduce through loss of testing downtime and the purchase of printed tests and score reports.
And more important, the student would have a better sense of personal progress and greater involvement and ownership of learning outcomes. Our competitive place in the education world would move toward the top.