Problems: High-Stakes Standardised Tests [Marion Brady]

Treehorn Express:

Shared opinions soaked in knowledge & experience.


Marion Brady

Marion Brady is one of my favourite writers. He writes for The Washington Post usually in Valerie Strauss’s column. This is a unique combination of outstanding journalist and great educator. Marion, I believe, has the ability to express an important issue in an unequivocal succinct manner. Here is his “partial list of problems with standardized, machine-scored tests, problems which should be addressed before such tests are used to determine student life chances, …and undermine confidence in public schooling to pave the way to privatization.” One or two have been altered slightly for Australian conditions.

Commercially produced, standardized, machine-scored tests:

  1. Can measure only “lower level” thought processes, trivializing learning.
  2. Provide minimal to no useful feedback to classroom teachers.
  3. Are keyed to a deeply prescriptive national curriculum.
  4. Lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other non-verbal ways of learning.
  5. Unfairly advantage those who can afford out-of-school test preparation.
  6. Hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring.
  7. Penalize test-takers who think in non-standard way (which the young frequently do).
  8. Radically limit teacher ability to adapt to learner differences.
  9. Give control of the curriculum to test manufacturers.
  10. Encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators.
  11. Use arbitrary, subjectively-set pass-fail cut scores.
  12. Produce scores which can be (and sometimes are) manipulated for political purposes.
  13. Assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known.
  14. Emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance.
  15. Create unreasonable pressures to cheat.
  16. Reduce teacher creativity and the appeal of teaching as a profession.
  17. Are unavoidably biased by social-class, ethnic, regional and other cultural differences.
  18. Lessen concern for and use of continuous evaluation.
  19. Have no “success in life” predictive power.
  20. Unfairly channel instructional resources to learners at or near the pass-fail “cut score”.
  21. Are open to massive scoring errors with life-changing consequences.
  22. Are at odds with deep-seated values about individuality and worth.
  23. Create unnecessary stress and negative attitudes towards learning.
  24. Perpetuates the artificial compartmentalization of knowledge by field.
  25. Channel increasing amounts of tax money into corporate coffers instead of classroom.
  26. Waste the vast, creative potential of human variability.
  27. Block instructional innovations that cannot be evaluated by machines.
  28. Unduly reward mere ability to retrieve second-hand information from memory.
  29. Subtract from available instructional time.
  30. Lend themselves to “gaming” – use of strategies to improve the success-rate of guessing.
  31. Make time – a parameter largely unrelated to ability – a factor in scoring.
  32. Create test fatigue, aversion, and an eventual refusal to take tests seriously.
  33. Undermine a fundamental principle that those closest to the work are best-positioned to evaluate its quality.
  34. Simply don’t work. PISA scores for Australian 15 year-olds have slumped considerably over 5 years.

In public lectures, Marion Brady is fond of allocating this list of problems to each member of the audience to encourage dialogue. Every reader of The Treehorn Express who has the opportunity, is encouraged to do the same. Marion would approve. Share this list with parents at school meetings; with teachers at subject meetings, union meetings, staff meetings, principals’ meetings, Probus meetings, Rotary, LIONS, CWA, political party meetings, caucus, cabinet, even senate inquiries…any kind of meeting where some people are likely to ‘care for kids’ and are concerned about Australia’s future. Carry a copy with you. It is my intention to use it in this way and to add the tablet that compares GERM ideals [Pasi Sahlberg] with those of Leading-Learning ideals.

PLEASE ENCOURAGE others to think about the 34 points above. Ask your local member to print it out and spread it around.


Australia’s version of high-stakes testing is called NAPLAN. It is a feature of a political dystopia that is ruled by demanding feudal lords and ladies who don’t know what they are doing; nor do they realise the amount of damage that they do. NAPLAN, as the backbone of our schooling system, has Stalinist overtones of a ‘state theory of learning’; that the behaviour of individuals can be regulated by fiat. Schools have to carry the baggage of this kind of political disrespect for children. Unfamiliar with the real pupil demographic and unwilling to learn, members of parliament instil fears and stress through schools by their support for high-stakes testing.

2013 needs to be the year when they think about what they are doing to this great country.

The top twenty jobs in highest demand in 2012 did not exist in 2004. Present day school children will be seeking jobs that do not exist using technologies that have yet to be invented. How do schools prepare them for this?  There is a critical choice : TEACH THEM HOW TO LEARN  or  TEST THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF THEM.

Click: ‘Care for Kids’

Phil Cullen

January 9 2013

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