Colorado’s AP Mess, Standardized Tests and Getting it “Wrong”

I’ll admit it, for the past ten years or so I’ve taught “The Gifted.”  Actually, this year I’m doing a little something different (more about that another time), but my background is in dealing with little people a whole hell of a lot smarter than your humble blogger.  It’s a wonderful letting go of ego and a helluva lot of intellectual tap dancing improv.

Teaching “The Gifted” is different and one of the ways that is true, I guess, is “test preparation.”  Much of traditional test preparation is sorta like those DIY home improvement shows on TV.  Tricks and little things to remember like “look for the answer that is close to the right one, but involves doing an operation wrong” and “the answer is always ‘C’.”  What we talked about instead  in “Gifto” class when it came to preparing for tests, especially the “standardizes” ones, was creating a mental picture of the test-maker and test-grader.  What do those folks look like?  What is their favorite TV show?  Who is their favorite author? much do they get paid to get through a huge stack of these boring-as-hell tests?   Knowing who is making/grading the thing helps informs kids wishing to make a 98% instead of a 95% percent on tests like that.   And that, as is the nature of the world, “The Gifted” especially, is darn important.

Which gets me to the lovely, juicy blow up over AP U.S. History curricular changes up in suburban Denver.   Everything we thought was true, kids.  The testmakers/graders really do look and think like that!   Or at least some of them do, and what’s “right” to some ain’t “right” to others.  In class we’d call this way of the world beautiful grounds for a debate or classroom discussion.  We’d talk about the difference between the two.  But in testing, such as an AP test, there’s no debate/discussion…there’s just a score, a score based on circling little good points (in the view of the testgrader, using a little “rubric”) and counting up the circles.  And when it comes to subjects like U.S. History, you can bet there’s discrepancy on how many points get circled because what’s “good” to one grader is “bad” to another.

The fight up in Denver is, in my mind, about the most important fight anyone can have about anything.  Discussing and debating the importance of civil disobedience and its responsibilities, limitations and essential importance is the single-most discussion/debate a society can have.  At the same time, AP and other “Standardized Tests” exist in an artificial vacuum devoid of such discussion/debate.   Hell, look at the word right there:  Standardized.  Got it?

That’s something to keep in mind as we go to fewer multiple choice questions on PARCC this year in New Mexico and elsewhere and expand the open-ended questions.  While the importance of knowing one’s testmaker/grader is still very important in terms of determining where the heck a multiple choice question is coming from (I’d cite plenty of examples, but you know that’s against the rules), that importance expands geometrically (or more) when it comes to open-ended answers.  One thing I’ve told younger teachers, the ones without gray hair who teach “regular” classes, repeatedly:  Open-ended answers are the best thing ever, but what do you do with the ones you don’t agree with?  The really stupid answers?

Thanks and applause for the folks up in Denver fighting to keep those “stupid” answers around.  You know, “stupid” answers like Rosa Parks and Gandhi and the civil protests still yet to come…hopefully.


P.S.:  And yes this extends to other sides of the philosophical hall and academic setting.  How does the student pointing out holes in climate change “theory” get scored by the Science teacher?  Or on a Science “standardized test”?  Oh..wait,  Science is rarely tested.  Hey, Social Studies is almost never tested aside from AP, either.  Get it?  Does that tell you pretty much all you need to know?


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