Monday, October 23, 2006

Central Planning Mainframe Mindset

Standardized testing harks back to the 1950s, in the days of punch cards and mainframe computers. You'd submit a request for processor time, carefully punch out all the cards, submit them, and wait. Some time later, an operator would put the cards in the queue, and report results back. Programmers would hope the result wasn't that they had gotten one card out of order and they had to start over.

All that changed beginning in the late 1970s for computers. By the time I started programming computers, we could run Basic programs on a teletype. Before Jimmy Carter left office, I had a computer with 64K of RAM, a color display, a hard drive, and a printer. These days, you can get more computer power on your desktop than was available to all of NASA in the early days of Apollo. And for your home computer, you can get education software that gives your kids instant feedback on their learning process.

But not so for standardized tests. Kids fill out computer forms that have hardly evolved since the days of punch cards. They do long comprehensive tests that give little opportunity to help the child that took the test, rather than short quizzes on material they are currently learning. And then, they wait. The tests are gathered with the same level of security and reliability that we get at the voting booth, and carted off to a central bureaucracy, where they are tabulated.

And then the kids go home for the summer.

By September, some of the results come back to the school. Here in Massachusetts, the AYP Press Release of failed schools goes out in mid-September, or roughly four months too late for a school to make effective use of the data for high level planning purposes for the year.

Our principle says they think they can make good use of some of the disaggregated data from the test results they got back from central planning.

I bet they could have gotten a lot more use out of that if they'd just had a series of micro-tests during the course of instruction.

Meanwhile, here we are, at year 2.5 - we just found out that our school missed AYP this fall, a half a year after the tests that could have told us, and four months after the school could have used the information to adapt curriculum or classroom configurations for this year. So we'll be going into the third year before the principle has a lot of options for adjusting things.

In the fourth year, the principle can get fired, so I suspect we will see some changes next year.

High on the list, if the Principle is desperate to hold onto his job, will be retention of a few third-graders who appear headed for failure in 4th grade MCAS testing. One of the dirty secrets of No Child Left Behind is that the easiest way to improve test scores is to identify kids likely not to hit the proficient threshold, and hold them back.

I remember back when I went into 7th grade, there were a couple kids who'd been held back a year or two. They had a hard time fitting in the desks, and were always in trouble for disrupting the classroom. I was about a foot shorter than they were.

I read in today's Washington Post that as many as 14% of Florida 3rd graders have been held back a year.

If they're holding back third graders in Florida, I bet Florida's test results are coming back a couple months sooner than Massachusett's test results do.


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