Ohanian: Putting a test on computer doesn’t make it up-to-date

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Susan Ohanian of Charlotte, a longtime teacher and author of 25 books on education policy and practice. Her website is at www.susanohanian.org.

The press release published in VTDigger (Oct. 23) by the Vermont Department of Education makes me weep. I shed tears for what the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has in store for Vermont children. Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca says, “These sample items will provide Vermont teachers with an early look into the rigor and complexity students will see on the Smarter Balanced assessments.”

Looking at the sample items for English Language Arts/Literacy, I’m reminded of that old Wendy’s ad, “Where’s the beef?”

I’d like to see the research supporting the use of a copy-editing test (finding apostrophe errors in someone else’s writing) as evidence of a student’s facility with language. Assessments drive instruction, and I shudder to think of the school assignments such copy-editing items will provoke. After all, the Department of Education press release says teachers should use these sample items for planning.

Rigor and complexity? No. Mind-numbing drill on material that research shows is useless? Yes.

And then there are those context clues. I guess no assessment would be complete without the old chestnut of using context clues to figure out the meaning of a word. Test makers do it because it’s easy to assess. They choose to ignore the research documenting what a small role old-fashioned “context clues” exercises play in student vocabulary development. I summarized this research in a book chapter: “Context Clues: Cure-All or Claptrap?” Research shows that when students read for pleasure they experience multiple encounters with new words — and it’s those multiple encounters that result in significant vocabulary growth.

Yes, “context clues” have their place in classroom instruction, but it is a very small place. Smarter Balanced exhibits its creaky antiquity by ignoring research and going with the same old, same old, easily testable, item that presents vocabulary savvy as a puzzle-solving trick.

Bring on ugly, brain-numbing skill drill worksheets. I am disappointed that our State Department of Education chooses to act as an echo chamber for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hyped-up rhetoric about these pricey assessments.

If you want your young child to develop savvy about how words work, buy her lots of “genre” riddle books — books such as those written by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg: Creepy Riddles, Spooky Riddles, Turkey Riddles, Fishy Riddles, Piggy Riddles, and so on.

And about those “innovative, technology-enhanced items that take advantage of computer-based administration to assess a deeper understanding of content and skills.” Caveat emptor. Here are a couple of samples: Highlight the part of the text. … Highlighting as innovative technology? In math, the testee sees a silhouetted swimmer’s animated legs before getting to a question that requires rounding swimming times to the nearest 10th, something kids who know anything about racing know would never happen in the real world. In another problem, the testee is instructed to make use of technological innovation to drag a juice bottle into a grocery bag. Whoopee.

Sadly, the Vermont Department of Education actually urges teachers to use these Smarter Balanced items “to begin planning the shifts in instruction that will be required to help students meet the demands of the new assessments.” Bring on ugly, brain-numbing skill drill worksheets. I am disappointed that our State Department of Education chooses to act as an echo chamber for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hyped-up rhetoric about these pricey assessments. I suppose it’s no surprise that someone with no teaching experience uses exclamation points to describe his enthusiasm for new tests clothed in hype about technology (See http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/beyond-bubble-tests-next-generation-assessments-secretary-arne-duncans-remarks-state-l). After all, Arne’s the one who handed out 361 million taxpayer dollars to the two testing consortia: Smarter Balanced and PARCC. (In 2011 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation kicked in another $743,331 “to support capacity building at SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium …”)

I understand Duncan. I understand Bill Gates. I expected better from the people in Montpelier.

The Smarter Balanced released items show us that the testing industry doesn’t even try to teach an old dog new tricks. Instead, with 176 million taxpayer dollars in their coffers for “development,” Smarter Balanced hired CTB/McGraw-Hill to deliver 10,000 test items — bland items with no authors and no voice and lots of items requiring copy-editing skills (press release: http://www.ctb.com/ctb.com/control/aboutUsNewsShowAction?newsId=45443.0&p=aboutUs)

Now I know why these Smarter Balanced released items look so familiar. CTB/McGraw-Hill has been selling this stuff since 1926.

As a Vermont taxpayer, I know I’ve been robbed. But much much worse, as a longtime teacher I know children will be victimized as part of the plan to develop obedient, passive workers for a global economy, workers who’ve been trained to follow orders. Kids will spend lots of time drilling on context clues when they could be reading why the strich/worm/grizzly/sheep/dinosaur crossed the road. I know the answers to every one of these questions because one of my third-graders made a collection of “cross the road” riddles. For him and for me, that was research that counts.

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6 Comments on "Ohanian: Putting a test on computer doesn’t make it up-to-date"


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4 years 2 months ago

For approximately 30% less per student then that which is spent in the US Finland continues to be held up in international measures as the world’s preeminent educational success story.

How do the Fins do it? Here is a good start: http://www.businessinsider.com/finland-education-school-2011-12?op=1

(Hint: it isn’t about longer school days, more standardized testing or going after teachers.)

4 years 2 months ago

Yes, this is a great list. The Finns believe children should play. Many kindergartens in the US have removed the blocks, and playhouses and test kids on their reading skills. Of course the Finns also have a social network system, which means they don’t have 25% of their children living in poverty.

Bruce Post
4 years 2 months ago
I want to thank Rama for the link to the article about Finland’s approach to education. Here is another one: “How Finland Became An Education Leader” http://www.salon.com/2011/07/18/tony_wagner_finland/ Here is one interesting quote from that latter article: “But beyond that, what I find so striking is that the reforms in [the U.S.] have been driven and led by businesses for the last quarter century. It was David Kearns at Xerox and Lou Gerstner at IBM calling for a national summit on education and they didn’t invite any educators. They invited CEOs and governors and senators and congressmen.” Having helped Bob Stafford… Read more »
Mark Collins
4 years 2 months ago

I’m so disappointed in Vermont. They were always in the forefront in the 1990’s. Why not just buy an old ditto workbook and pass them out to the students?

4 years 2 months ago

This piece has the wrong hot link to the Vermont State Department of Education press release on the Smarter Balanced assessment. For a look at the hot air, go here:

Andrew Steinman
4 years 2 months ago
It really bothers me when people compare the American educational system to those in other countries. While I think it is good to identify the differences and seek improvements, we can’t forget about all of the factors that are causing these differences. For example, Finland has some great strategies in place and is very effective in educating their students. What most people ignore is that Finland also has much less diversity within their student population. If students were much more homogeneous in the US, teaching them would be a lot easier and would cost a lot less. I could rant… Read more »
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