Test phobia

Everyone knows a little about test phobia: the dream of showing up for class and realizing that the biggest test of the year is that day (and you didn’t study), the clutching fear of a test that you’ve studied for but fear nonetheless, the simple fear of failure.

What if you took a test, then found out after the fact that the grading scale had been dramatically changed?  That instead of needing an 69 to pass, you’d have to get an 80 — but you already turned it in?

That’s what Tennessee school systems are facing right now.  Sometime in the next few weeks, Tennessee will issue our State Report Card.  This shows, for the state as a whole, for every district, and for every school, how well our students did on the TCAP tests last April.  It also shows the TVAAS (value added) score — how much students improve from year to year, not just how well they did this year.

Last April, the test that the kids took (grades 3-8) was pretty much the same test as they’ve taken for the last decade.  What’s different is that the grading scale has changed: kids have to score higher to attain the desirable “proficient” or “advanced” designations.  With the grading scale raised, it’s almost certain that fewer kids will attain such scores, making it appear that a higher percentage of our students are something less than proficient.  If that happens, the value-added grade could actually be negative.

It will appear, on the surface, that our students’ performance has declined.  For those of us who are aware of the change in the grading scale, we’ll know to look more closely to see what happened with the raw scores, not just the grade, but my fear is that most people won’t know the difference.

Next year will be worse, as the grading scale will remain higher, but the test will be made markedly harder as well.

Neither of those things is inherently bad.  More is required of today’s students to be competitive in the world, and we’re teaching them more in preparation for that fact.   The downside is that the school system is judged annually on these scores (they have No Child Left Behind implications as well), and if the public doesn’t realize that the rules of the game changed mid-stream, then the system is subject to intense criticism.  That’s a morale-buster for the teachers, and makes it tougher to obtain the public funding for education that is required.

Every school system in Tennessee is subject to the change in the rules, so it shouldn’t have a huge impact in comparing one school (or one school system) to another.  Where the change in rules impacts the most is in making comparisons of how the same school did in 2007 to 2008 — a measure of improvement.  For the next few years, that measure will be badly flawed.

We will rise to the challenge and meet or exceed the new standards.  It just won’t happen immediately, and we all need to be prepared for that.

4 thoughts on “Test phobia

  1. Well, as a leader in the local Republican party, you were in the vanguard of the attack on US public schools. Even though you left your position of leadership in the local GOP, you still embrace the party that stands opposed to government funding of schools.

    The arguments you make against phony yardsticks for students is valid. It is odd to me that you embrace the political philosophy that advances such yardsticks.

    More evidence for my theory that, in humans, the traits of high intelligence and good judgement are unlinked.

  2. Thanks, Harry. Actually, I would probably support Joel’s theory… intelligence is no assurance of good judgment. Makes me feel better to know that some of the dumb mistakes I’ve made over the years do not necessarily mean I’m intellectually challenged.

    Actually, partisanship has nothing to do with this post, as the reforms noted (State, not federal) occurred under the initiative and support of a Democratic governor. Nor do I oppose said reforms. The point is that people need to understand the nature of the changes, and the results that should be expected in the next couple of years.

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