Ashley Anderson: Flawed tests discourage students and hurt schools

Bill to end letter grades for school achievement should be approved.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Sixth graders at Fox Hollow Elementary School in Lehi take the state SAGE test.

Imagine you are a 9-year-old student who is taking a test. You read a passage about a globe –– its shape, its function, other facts about what you might use a globe for. You come to the question about the passage: “You would use a globe to ___________ places.”

Return to your adult brain to answer the question. I myself have asked 20 adults to fill in the blank and they’ve all come up with find or synonyms. What zero adults I’ve asked have come up with is the correct answer, according to this Reading Inventory administered in Utah schools: “You would use a globe to visit places.”

I can think of a lot of tools I’d need to visit a place. A globe isn’t one. Not only is the concept of the response needlessly colonial (the only purpose of finding a place on a map is to put yourself there) it is also wrong. No one needs to carry a globe to travel the world.

Return to being 9, and remember that kids are not asked to explain their answers on this, or any, standardized test. The rest of the questions are about as perplexing, and so you punt and finish the whole thing in just 12 minutes.

Why do you do this? You’d rather be reading. You leave your desk, tell your mom you are done for the day and you re-read the best parts of “A Wolf Called Wander,” your favorite new book from the school librarian’s Battle of the Books. You read a new graphic novel from cover to cover. You read more later, to prepare a science project for class and you even read music as you prepare for your weekly piano lesson.

While you are doing all that reading, a computer somewhere is tabulating your test and delivering the result: You are below the academic expectation in language arts for a student your age. Mostly this is because of how quickly you rushed through. It’s also a question of what the test itself is measuring. None of it reveals how well you can actually read or recall what you’ve read.

Because the 9-year-old in this story is mine, I reached out to his teacher (who is excellent). She agreed that this particular assessment did not align with her experiences teaching my child. While tests are part of life, this single indicator was not capturing the skills offered in classwork. This story is one of the reasons I ask all Utahns to support state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore’s Senate Bill 91: School Accountability Amendments.

As many are aware, in 2011 Utah adopted a grading policy based on a Florida law – schools are given letter grades linked to standardized testing as a way to hold schools accountable to families. Since then there have been some changes (growth was factored in, a more comprehensive dashboard was offered, moratoriums were given for assorted circumstances in testing). What hasn’t changed? The stakes.

My child’s “wrong” answer to the question about the globe is something that would move his school’s grade down. If I opt my child out of testing (on the grounds that questions such as these are absurd) that also counts against the school’s grade. None of this improves the education of real students.

The test worked only in that it caused me to check in with the teacher to see if there was an issue. There were two issues and neither were reading – one was that awful question, the other that my child was only willing to devote 12 minutes to the challenging task at hand.

Assessments can be a useful tool in the hands of an educator who knows and cares for a child on a personal level, but let’s eliminate school grades based on tests that don’t tell our students’ stories. Please move SB91 ahead in the legislative session.

Ashley Anderson

Ashley Anderson is a parent and arts educator living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Salt Lake City.