An October 4, 2011 Orange County Register article that reports a California high school’s policy to color code student ID cards based on their performance on state exams raises several real concerns, including student privacy. Anthony Cody in his blog post “Color Coded High School ID Cards Sort Students By Test Performance” published on October 6, 2011 in Education Week Teacher writes that “[s]tudents [at a La Palma, CA high school] who perform at the highest levels in all subjects receive a black or platinum ID card, while those who score a mix of proficient and advanced receive a gold card. Students who score "basic" or below receive a white ID card.” These cards come with privileges and are meant to increase motivation to perform well on state standardized exams. Followers’ comments and concerns posted to the blog address “fixing identity” and that testing conveys the idea that “learning and achievement isn't reward in itself. … You're not worth anything unless WE tell you are based on this one metric.” These are valid concerns, but the larger issue being highlighted here is the misuse and misapplication of the standardized tests themselves.
True, the La Palma school policy of color coding does move students into specific identities, but this is already being done, though perhaps not as explicitly as color coded ID cards; students are separated into different leveled classes and groups within those classes, and even in a “mixed level” class, the students tend to divide amongst themselves. While diversity of achievement level does exist within social groups, many times students of similar ability and experience flock together, whether or not they are given color coded ID cards. The concern of individual motivation is valid as well, on both ends of the spectrum; however, this, too, has been prevalent for years. There are those who are motivated to do well on these tests independently, those who are not interested at all, and those who need external motivation. Color coding will likely not have such a great effect on these students.
So let us turn our attention to the tests themselves, and their use and application – or misuse and misapplication. Standardized tests are useful in comparing skill sets among bodies of students. In tests on the scale of these state standardized tests, the information about performance skill among subgroups within a school, performance between schools in a particular district, and performance between districts across the state can be quite informative and helpful in assessing and guiding steps for improvement at each level. They are even helpful in designing curriculum, if used appropriately, because they set a standard of skill to be reached.
However, state standardized tests are not useful when they become the curriculum. The tests are meant to test large skill sets; they are meant to examine a student’s ability to apply a skill learned in one context to a new context. When teachers choose or are forced to exchange developing critical thinking skills for test preparation, the students and the community lose. All test prep does is teach students to take tests. It does not help them learn to be critical, thinking members of society who can analyze a book or film, weed out the spin in a political ad or news source, or understand the gravity of an oil spill or nuclear disaster halfway around the world. These critical thinking skills can and should be honed in every domain, but all too often teachers focus on memorizing vocabulary and formulas and what Romeo said in Act II, Scene i, line 2. (Incidentally, it is “Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.” But does knowing that enhance your life?)
State standardized tests are not useful when they determine a teacher’s teaching schedule or bonus money. Every year I wished our school faculty would be open to sharing test scores with one another. I could see where my students fell short, and I wanted to share that with my colleagues so they would be able to work on those skills next year. I wanted to know how that teacher taught this standard…maybe I could learn something. I wanted to know where this year’s students would need extra help, and work with my colleagues to determine the best strategies to move forward. But no one wanted to share with me. Test scores have become part of a teacher’s personal pride, and often they also determine the types of classes one teaches the following year. A merit system may sound good in theory, but this is not what the tests were meant to determine, so it is not likely to work.
State standardized tests are not useful when they are the determining factor of a student’s acceptance or rejection into a higher level course. While they may give a general picture of a student’s performance – assuming they took the test seriously, were focused, and had an overall “good” testing experience – generalities do not tell the entire story. More than test scores are needed to accurately determine the potential success of a student in a particular class; one must take into account specific skills necessary to achieve, as well as the fact the scores used to place students in a 10th grade English class often come from their 8th grade scores, since the 9th grade scores will not be available in time for registration and the making of the master schedule. This is not what the tests are for.
State standardized tests can be harmful when they determine whether a school will keep its funding. It seems backward to take funding away from an underperforming school and make them pay for their students to be bussed somewhere else. How will they improve? How will they fund professional development and bring in more student assistance? A lack of funding means that materials cannot be updated in a timely fashion and that stressed teachers need to focus more on getting their students to prepare for a test than developing the learning strategies and critical thinking skills that would actually help them learn and grow and perform well on exams and in life.
State standardized tests have their function, and they are good at measuring what they were intended to measure. But when the tests are misused – when a school tells students through the use of color coded ID cards that standardized tests are valued over their development of critical and analytical thinking skills, we have a problem.