How Incompetent Tests Are Terrifying 3rd Graders

04/14/2014 09:06 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2014

The "embarrassing truth" for Tulsa World editor Mike Strain is that he missed two of the six sample questions on the test that Oklahoma 3rd graders must pass to be promoted. The embarrassing truth for society is that we are stressing our children, so some vomit on their tests or wet their pants, and teaching them to dread school. The embarrassing truth that school reformers should face is that they imposed a heartbreaking and doomed testing regime without having a clue about what they were doing.

The test question says, "The pelican dives and scoops more than three gallons of fish and water in one gulp ..." The newspaper editor (and I) read that as saying that the bird took the fish in one "grab." (The supposedly better answer was "swallow.")

Similarly, the first sentence of the reading passage tells children the fact that the pelican is "one of the best fishermen in the world." But, a 3rd grader who trusted the adult who wrote the passage could be flunked if he answered (like Strain and I did) that that is a statement of fact.

Of course, these are just two of a series of embarrassingly bad test questions spawned by the punitive testing mania. Last year, nationally, the controversies centered on the infamous "Pineapple question" and similar absurdities. The Oklahoma Department of Education is different from other systems that are experimenting on children only in that it issued a novel reply. Such questions apparently aren't unfair to 3rd graders because they can read the Standard which the questions are assessing!?!?

It is especially hard to figure out what Oklahoma reformers think these tests are supposed to accomplish - other than take pounds of flesh out of supposedly underachieving children and their teachers. Apparently, this rapid ramping up of testing in the name of "rigor" and "raising the bar" is a part of campaign to keep "liberal unions" from preventing kids from "exceed(ing) their own expectations."

These 3rd grade assessments, like the End of Instruction tests that high school students are supposed to take, apparently are a transition to "Common Core-type" tests. (See pps. 8-9). Of course, children taking them have little or no "Common Core-type" instruction. Apparently, the Education Department is toughening students and teachers up, phasing in a system for failing more and more kids.

When told of the unintended results of their reforms, national supporters of Common Core testing are likely to stick with their standard replies. These true-believers often say that it's not their fault that Common Core was mandated at a time when high stakes 3rd grade tests were being imposed in some states, despite having as little as 1/5th of the resources that they require. (See p. 12.) It's not their fault that states had graduation laws on their books, previously requiring minimum competency exit exams, so that now, by their fiat, passing college readiness tests is required to graduate.

I frequently hear accountability-driven reformers claim that it is not their fault that schools struggling with high-stakes tests impose destructive levels of stress on children. It is not their fault that Common Core is being imposed as underfunded systems have struggled, unsuccessfully, to fund and implement reforms like the Oklahoma's Reading Sufficiency Act, as poor districts also must meet the impossible metrics of the A-F Report Card. Common Core supporters say that it isn't their fault that it is being implemented as schools face an equally and oppositely overwhelming challenge - the implementation of test-driven teacher evaluations.

But, shouldn't these non-educators have inventoried the challenges that are already overwhelming schools before they mandated this new high-risk experiment?

And, should reformers have looked into some of the sad history of dysfunctional testing before doubling down punishment-driven reforms?

In the 1970s, I attended graduate school in New Jersey, the home of the College Board, so the news was full of reports about the cultural biases in the bubble-in testing of that era. The harm done by those tests was minimal in comparison to today's assessment regimes but, still, the limitations of those metrics were well known.

Entering the classroom in the early 1990s, I joined a half dozen other professionals with masters degrees and doctorates in inventorying 1980s tests. We often failed to agree on what the test-makers thought were right answers, or what the test-makers' rationale could possibly be.

When NCLB began in 2002, Supply and Demand 101 said that the huge increase in demand for standardized tests would predictably reduce the quality of the test supply. Rational Expectations 101 said that states would lower their testing standards and systems undoubtedly would use test prep malpractice, socializing children into basic skills instruction where they were drilled on the one "right" answer. I was working with the teachers union and the school system to minimize the predictable harm and, perhaps, make the law work. So, I was grasping at straws when I attended a meeting where history teachers evaluated the quality of the new accountability tests.

Before the meeting, I prejudged my fellow teachers who were ridiculing the very first sample question. The right answer (about the Progressive era, which I had written an award-winning book about) was obvious, so what was the argument over? My colleagues were correct, however; the test-maker's answer was wrong.

Common Core enthusiasts were in too much of a hurry to pay attention to the institutional history of education and flawed test-making. They just assumed that the answer to mindless tests and the rote instruction that it encouraged was too impose "a test worth teaching to." I have no idea why they believed that the decades-long parade of testing errors would simply disappear.

I expect that in the short run, at least, reformers will stick with the party line. School improvement is hard, they will maintain, and mistakes will be made. They will continue to say that we should urge schools to minimize the harm inflicted on students, especially the youngest ones. Systems should implement Common Core and "Common Core-type" tests in ways that doesn't drive too many teenagers out of school. They'll urge districts to not destroy more teachers' careers than necessary as these mistakes are ironed out.

I also suspect that Common Core advocates are embarrassed by the long string of testing fiascoes that it is creating. They should remember the newspaper editor's words, however, when he missed 1/3rd of the new test question sample. Mike Strain concludes, "Thankfully, I'm only embarrassed and frustrated. For third graders, there's a lot more at stake than pride."