Thirty-three states have bought into the nationalized Common Core curriculum for math and language arts; several even before it was finalized. Those states represent the coasts and south. But the upper Great Plains states (except Nebraska) are a holdout to this latest “reform.”
To overcome widespread opposition to federalized education, purveyors of this reform are bragging that this will get away from fill-in-the-bubble tests. They will use performance testing. Instead of testing discrete facts, they will test for higher reasoning and problem solving skills.
Kansas has good reason to ignore this advertising. When it comes to performance testing, Kansas has been there, done that.
Kansas implemented performance-based assessment in the late 1990s. It was a total failure.
The education gurus then and now live under the illusion that there is a generalized way-of-thinking for problem-solving. Once this magical system is internalized, it can be used to solve all sorts of problems, in spite of decades of failure.
The 1990s Kansas science performance assessment posed several actual experimental questions. Schools had to know ahead of time which problem they would receive so they could order the materials their students would then “creatively” use to design and conduct tests. One question involved whether the microscopic holes in leaf surfaces would vary in different environments. Counting these holes required clear fingernail polish and tape; the school would buy up the whole community supply in preparation for the test.
Teachers could either chose to not prep their students for the specific underlying knowledge, or drop everything and teach about the leaf. Students who knew leaf structure scored much higher.
The take-home lesson for teachers was that there was no abstract higher level thinking without content knowledge. You have to know how to play chess to solve a chess problem. You have to know how a car works to solve a car problem. And knowing how to solve a chess problem does not aid you in solving a car problem.
We also asked whether it is reasonable or desirable to expect ALL students to gain skills in analysis, interpretation, and synthesis of science ideas (which are still great simplifications of complex thought). This is as unreasonable as expecting all students to become skilled artists. Some are Einsteins and some are Piccasos. Some are neither. And it is wrong to pressure the system to make each student all of these.
Kansas science teachers were frustrated. Kansas put a moratorium on the science performance-based testing that consumed a week for teachers to administer and another week to grade (and the grading was not reliable). Kansans know, “the more you weigh them, the less time you have to feed them.”
Today’s “new” tests are computer-based, faster and impersonal. But these so-called high-level reasoning problem-solving tests will only drive the teach-to-the-test fever that is narrowing the curriculum, making learning tedious, and driving our college student talent to fields other than teaching.
No testing is needed that is external to the teacher's class. We only need those quizzes and tests a teacher finds useful in moving forward each student’s unique learning. Tests are the responsibility of the professional teacher. And if teachers author their own tests and keep them to a minimum as they should, it is difficult for the administration, media and government to mis-use them.
Finland, recognized as the best K-12 system in the world based on the college-success rates of its graduates, long ago decided: “less testing, more learning.”