The movement to refuse to take some types of standardized tests has been the subject of much debate this school year. Issaquah parent Betsy Cohen is a long-time education advocate in her community. In this blog post, she shares a personal story of two Washington high school students taking the same courses with the same common assessment but with different teachers in different, high-performing schools to illustrate why objective measures and standards continue to serve a vital role in our education system.
There is almost nothing more “standardized” than Advanced Placement (AP) courses and their tests. AP classes offer college-level curricula and exams to high school students. Some colleges and universities offer course credit to students who score high on these exams. Even those that don’t accept credit still look favorably on the applications of students who take and complete AP courses. The classes come with their own textbooks, so the curriculum is standardized, too.
A few years ago, I had coffee with a woman whose daughter was a freshman student at a highly-ranked engineering school – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). She had attended a different public high school in Washington than my daughter. I was sharing my daughter’s travails in her AP Calculus class. She and more than half the class were floundering with C’s, D’s and F’s, despite being typically strong math students. Although she had taken the same class, my friend’s daughter had an entirely different experience. She said her engineering-student daughter (who was also strong in math) had performed well in the class, and earned a good grade, but then explained that her daughter had nonetheless “failed the AP test, almost no one passes that. I think only a few kids in her class passed.”
I was taken aback, because at the beginning of the school year, my daughter’s teacher had announced to parents that over 90 percent of the kids in her class earn a 4 or 5 on the AP exam every year (i.e., the highest possible grade – AP tests are graded on 0-to-5 scale ), and no one had failed the test in recent memory. When I relayed my daughter’s experience to my friend, our discussion of AP Calculus ended there with both of us a little confused.
Later that summer, we learned my daughter had in fact scored a 5 on the AP Calculus exam. This bumped her final grade up from a D+ to a C+, and she scooted off happily to college.
And the lesson here? We had two teachers teaching the same class with the same curriculum, both of them doing it as well as they possibly can. My daughter and my friend’s daughter were both strong math students.
Looking solely at how the students were performing in class during the school year, you would probably conclude the other teacher (not my daughter’s) was doing the better job, because her students were mostly getting A’s and B’s, and the students were feeling pretty good about how they were performing. And my daughter’s teacher must have been doing a less-than-stellar job – or the material was simply too hard for the students – because the students were consistently bombing quizzes and tests, while expressing considerable anxiety about their in-class grades. Although both high schools in question are considered high-performing schools, it was not until all the students took the same standardized AP test that we then had an objective benchmark. Those results in turn could shed some light on which teacher’s instructional methods were more effective at preparing the students.
Of course, nobody likes to take tests. But this brief exchange among parents serves as an important reminder of the value of students across the state and beyond of taking the same test at least once during the year. Yes, we should continue to have multiple measures of performance over the course of the year, such as quizzes and homework. But what this episode reveals is that you can’t always objectively judge learning by students’ grades in their class or how students or their teachers feel about the work. These measures are too subjective and can’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison. And sometimes, what’s “hard” for students in a class ends up being worthwhile in the end.
With the billions of dollars we invest in our education system every year, we deserve to know what we are getting for our money, so we can fix what doesn’t work and keep doing or improving what does work.