A recent article in the New York Times tells how Florida students’ writing proficiency suddenly plunged from 80% on a standardized writing test to 27%. It turns out the test had been rewritten, and students hadn’t been test-prepped for the changes. The response to this apparent plunge in proficiency? Lower the cutoff, of course. Amazingly, once the testing agency modified the scores necessary for proficiency, over 80% of Florida’s youngsters were immediately once again successful. To quote the Times article: “Presto! Problem solved.”
Can anyone truly believe that that these percentages are meaningful numbers? This is not science – it’s magical thinking. But the deeper problem that this little fiasco reveals is how necessary test preparation (a multi-billion dollar business, by the way) is for what is called academic success.
In a classroom, cramming for a test is only necessary if the student hasn’t learned the material. The intent of cramming is to get enough of the material into working memory to be able to answer questions correctly on the day of the test. In general, I think it’s safe to say that not much learning occurs while cramming. That’s not the purpose of the activity.
Test prep for high-stakes standardized tests is institutionalized cramming. I have participated many times in training my students for such tests. At my high school, we would take a week – a whole week in which we were not learning science – to prepare. And the intent of the prep was and is to show students the tricks of the trade to raise their scores. We did not spend one minute reviewing the science that might be on the test. It is, very bluntly, a question of gaming the system. Like all cramming, it has little to do with learning.
The necessity of massive test prep belies the claim that standardized tests measure learning. What such tests accomplish, instead, is to train students and teachers alike that cramming (or test prep) in order to raise scores is what matters in school. Not the direction we should be going, I think.