At the Chalk Face: Today’s Tests vs. “Better” Tests

I sent this letter to the editor (below) in response to Alan J. Borsuk’s article in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal.  In the article Professor Borsuk laments low standardized test scores and over testing and then simply (with the help of Marc Tucker, CEO and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy) offers up a silly solution—better tests.

This is silly (I could use a much stronger descriptor but it’s the Holiday season) considering that for the past 30 years we have been testing American students and getting essentially the same results time and time again.  Why would “better” tests change the results.  In fact wouldn’t better tests just continue to document (maybe in a “better” way) what we already know?  Wouldn’t these “better” tests tell us the the tragic story that this country continues to purposely ignore?

Generational poverty causes children to perform poorly on standardized tests!

In fact, just yesterday a study out of the University of Wisconsin documented poverty’s biological impact on brain development.

“This is an important link between poverty and biology. We’re watching how poverty gets under the skin,” says Barbara Wolfe, professor of economics, population health sciences and public affairs and one of the authors of the study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The differences among children of the poor became apparent through analysis of hundreds of brain scans from children beginning soon after birth and repeated every few months until 4 years of age. Children in poor families lagged behind in the development of the parietal and frontal regions of the brain — deficits that help explain behavioral, learning and attention problems more common among disadvantaged children.

The parietal lobe works as the network hub of the brain, connecting disparate parts to make use of stored or incoming information. The frontal lobe, according to UW–Madison psychology professor Seth Pollak, is one of the last parts of the brain to develop.

What’s interesting about this study is that the authors  never once conclude that shoddy first-generation tests contribute to brain loss.  Instead,  “poor nutrition and lack of sleep, lack of books and educational toys, parental stress, an unsafe environment, and limited enriching conversation are just a few of the potential contributors.”

Someone has to say it!

“Something’s got to give!”  The evidence is overwhelming.  We don’t need to spend billions of dollars on “better tests.”  We need to simply spend millions on access to books and educational toys for children living in poverty. “Something’s got to give!”

Follow Tim Slekar on Twitter: @slekar

Letter to the Editor

On December 7th Alan J. Borsuk’s “Standardized testing reaches crossroads: Test more or test better” immediately concludes, “The test results aren’t good. Get different tests.”  He then proceeds to point out the problem with standardized testing in today’s classrooms and even shares the dirty little secret that most policy makers refuse to acknowledge—after years of writing standards and testing “there is pretty much no evidence the testing systems…have prodded improvement.”

However, after using “evidence” to make the point that standards and testing don’t really work, Professor Borsuk proposes a solution devoid of evidence and only endorsed by Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy—better tests.

Implementing “better tests” on the surface sounds like a great idea.  I mean if the tests we’re using are inadequate and keep producing low scores why not find “better” tests?  The problem here is that tests simply “measure” achievement.  In the case of American public schools, for the past 30 years, tests have constantly documented that we do a horrible job helping students living in poverty—the achievement gap.

Professor Borsuk’s piece along with citations from Mr. Tucker demonstrates minimal if any understanding how living in poverty influences scores on achievement tests.

Why spend more money on tests as suggested by Borsuk?  There isn’t a single study that shows that better tests help homeless children. And why is “testing here to stay?” The last thing a homeless student needs is a new test.  Why not try a little  compassion and justice this time—not another test!

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Tim Slekar

Timothy D. Slekar is an associate professor of teacher education.