In the NYT this weekend, Michael Winerip details the fiasco in Florida stemming from bad scores on the state standardized writing test. This past summer, the state toughened standards but did not change the required passing score, resulting in plummeting proficiency levels statewide: only 27% of fourth graders scored proficient, compared to 81% just one year ago. Concerned about reactions nationally and from parents, the state scrambled to improve their results, ultimately lowering the score required to pass from a 4 to a 3. Suddenly, proficiency rates were right in line with past performance. All was right again (not). Excuse me for a moment while I bash my head against my desk.
Winerip is right to mock and malign the incompetence here. A couple points:
1) Radically changing the rigor of a test designed to measure longitudinal growth renders the results useless. It is fine to modify a test, and I appreciate the intent to raise academic expectations for students; making these changes at the expense of useful data, on the other hand, is misguided.
2) Fudging the numbers after the fact ultimately makes the problem worse. It is deceptive and unprofessional; I see it no differently from the state filling in bubbles for all of their students. The goal of testing is to highlight deficiencies to help guide instruction while holding schools accountable. Florida was apparently more concerned about its reputation, cheating the students and taxpayers while damaging the legitimacy of all state testing. If the state doesn’t have even have faith in their tests, why should we?
Though this case demonstrates the dark side of testing, we need to be careful about our conclusions. It is clear that there is something wrong with this test and test administration; Florida clearly needs reform in those areas. But it doesn’t mean is that holding schools accountable through testing is a bad idea. As I’ve said before, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Standardized testing as an institution is so young that we should not be surprised that the tests aren’t perfect; it will take time before they are where they need to be. Just as we give any other invention with great potential time to mature–computers, cars, planes–testing deserves the same patience. So while Florida fully deserves our ire and frustration, let’s remember what this incident is: a speed bump and valuable lesson on what not to do as we establish accountability as a tenet of our public education system.