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Standards and High-Stakes Tests: Apples and Oranges
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Ted Nellen has a go at high-stakes tests. Too often, high-stakes tests are used as the primary assessment tool for students, even for teachers and schools, Nellen says. He goes on to make a case for Webfolios as a much better tool for assessing students and schools than tests could ever be! Included: Agree or disagree with Ted? Join a discussion on our message boards!


There is a great misconception in this country about standards. The misconception arises because we speak of standards, but we use high-stakes tests to measure students' mastery of those standards. Standards and high-stakes tests are apples and oranges. There is little connection between the two. Those tests should never be used to determine whether or not a student might pass to the next grade or graduate from school.

Essentially, standards are generated by each state's department of education (except in Iowa, where the state defers to local school districts to set their own standards). But high-stakes tests are created by publishing companies. Those tests are often used by many states. They are not necessarily aligned with the curriculum or standards of the state in which the test is being used. A test given to a fourth-grade math class might test students on material that isn't even introduced to those students until fifth grade.

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Ted Nellen has some very definite ideas about standards, high-stakes testing, and the use of Webfolios as assessment tools. Any reactions to Ted's comments? Click here to join a discussion on our message board!

Most educators agree that we must have standards. You won't get any argument from me on that point. However, I take issue with using high-stakes tests to document students' achievement of those standards.

Declassify high-stakes tests as the sole determiner of success or failure! If those tests must be used, they should be used as a complement to a solid performance assessment plan. A plan that includes student portfolios!

Better yet, kick it up, replace those traditional student portfolios with Webfolios! The Web provides a perfect vehicle for student portfolios. Webfolios promote scholarship. They make public a student's best work. Teachers, parents, and peers can view that work on the Web. In addition, school administrators, college admissions officers, and potential employers can find it there. Webfolios involve the entire community in the learning of young scholars.

Webfolios tell us lots more than a number on a test, and they are more efficient too. They do not require administration of a blitz of tests. Webfolios allow for more interaction between scholars and teachers and others. They provide a better evaluation of scholars than do those high-stakes tests.

Who could ever figure out those scores on high-stakes tests anyway? What do those numbers mean? Which questions did the test-taker get right? Which questions did he or she get wrong? How many of the students' answers were guesses? Do we get a chance to review the tests with the scholars? Who created the questions on those tests anyway? What about the stories we hear in the media about horrendous mistakes made in the creation or scoring of those tests? Oh, and why do these high-stakes tests and standards apply only to public schools, not to private or religious schools? High-stakes tests raise too many questions. Those tests are just too private for me. I like making the work of our young scholars public.

So how can we, as educators, start the movement toward using Webfolios as the primary evaluation tool of our students' work? One way teachers can begin fighting the stranglehold of high-stakes tests is to use more WebQuests in the classroom. WebQuests incorporate standards, they promote scholarship, and they are public -- which is the best assessment.

Please don't confuse standards with high-stakes tests. Standards are fine; they can guide our pedagogy and instruction. That's the role that high-stakes tests should play too. But, in too many instances today, high-stakes tests don't inform instruction. Rather, they drive it.

Want to really know how our schools are doing? We should evaluate our schools by reviewing our scholars' work, not their test scores.

Ted Nellen is a former high school English teacher. Today, Nellen is a cybrarian, educational consultant, staff developer, and adjunct professor at New School University, Fordham University, and Marlboro College Marlboro College. He is also a guide for Connected University and a teacher and staff developer at Alternative, Adult & Continuing Education Schools & Programs in New York City.

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