The crux of the issue with standardized testing is how to make the tests standard. Teachers are different. Even teachers in the same building teaching the same curriculum teach it differently. However, we are all accountable to the same set of standards and thus the same tests. Assessments must be "common" to make sure that students are all learning the same things at the same level. It wouldn't be standard to say a student is Distinguished using Ms. Smith's test and grading when she'd be marked Apprentice an a test that Mr. Johnson created and scored. We have to know exactly what level students are at and be able to compare them to one another using the same measurement. You wouldn't draw up blueprints in feet and them buy the supplies with meters in mind. So measurements are even, curriculum is even and students are meant to learn evenly.
Then who makes the tests? A vendor. Then, to prepare for the test, the district gives schools common assessments for the end of each unit. These tests are based on how the vendor's test will actually look. At the end of every unit, I give a test that consists of a reading, ten multiple choice questions and one open response question (called an ORQ). I don't make the test, but I have to grade it.
We're halfway through our unit, which means tomorrow my students will be taking their diagnostic assessment. The diagnostic is the exact same as the actual end of unit assessment, but with a different reading. Do you know what we did in class today? We went over the basics of reading the question. Seriously. See, ORQs tend to have a specific language. The language is very assessmenty, if I can create a word. It has to be standard, so testing language has become standardized. Only, the students don't always know what it means. Moreover, I receive a rubric with which to grade these questions. It's difficult to grade a test question that you did not write since the author of the test normally knows exactly what they are looking for. I don't, so I get the rubric. Only the rubric generally includes some answers that my kids would never guess in a million years to put down as correct.
So today, in order to make the diagnostic assessment useful and see what skills my students are missing instead of what skills are attached to questions my students don't understand, we worked in groups and I gave them the question in my testing language. The collective "Oooh" from the class as they got what the question was asking was a little bit funny, but mostly frustrating from my position.
How many other schools have to teach their kids how to read a tricky question? Why did I have to waste a lesson on preparing question reading? Could tricky questions be playing a role in why our students don't score so well on state assessments? Who knows. I just know that my grading would be a lot simpler for me and my students if I wrote my own assessments.
I know standardized tests are the way to be fair. Passing my class with a low D for work that would get an A in another teacher's class isn't fair. I'd like to think that teachers on either extreme would be few and far between, but I honestly don't know. I just know that I'm doing what I can to help my kids be successful. Unfortunately, that means spending a few days reading test questions. On the plus side, their ORQs should be fantastic tomorrow!