School Testing Yields Big Profit$—But Only Spurious Test Scores

State testing programs profit test makers billions of dollars each year—particularly Pearson Education, Educational Testing Service, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill—but reading test scores provide almost no benefit to teachers or to students, the test takers. Scores do not benefit teachers because they (a) do not provide useful information for improving instruction and (b) only superficially measure academic growth, thus serving as an inadequate and misleading basis to assess teacher effectivenesTest makers faileds. Locally, reading test scores of students have been misused to label Palm Lane Elementary School as a failing school. In fact, state tests have almost nothing to do with assessing student achievement.

Testing is big business. Pearson, for example, publishes tests and textbooks used by students of all ages. During 2000, Pearson purchased the world’s largest testing publisher for $2.5 billion “to create the world’s leading integrated education company with assets ranging from textbooks to online learning facilities.” The passage of No Child Left Behind (2002) required the use of standardized tests throughout U.S. pubic schools, after which Pearson increased its holdings in educational businesses, which generate $4 billion each year in sales from North America. Pearson subsequently has become the world’s largest textbook publisher,  also selling software for grading student papers, tracking student behavior, and diagnosing assumed academic and psychological deficiencies. Furthermore, Pearson now houses the world’s largest database of student academic records (Harber, 2012).

State tests have almost nothing to do with assessing student achievement.

Testing is not assessment. School testing does not benefit students because its use is to monitor student achievement instead of to assess academic progress. Thus, a test score merely represents a student’s performance on a single day on an often simple and easily tested concept or task. Test scores principally benefit test makers, who must show their tests are valid and reliable. When a test measures the intended concept or task, it is valid. When a student records similar scores on multiple administrations of the same test, it is reliable.

The value of assessment occurs when a student’s achievement in a particular subject or skill is compared to a selected performance goal or standard. Scores on yearly administered school tests, however, have been used to compare achievement among students. Assessment requires measuring the growth of each student in a given content or skill multiple times throughout the school year, perhaps weekly or monthly. The principal goal of assessment is to collect data for improving student performance and to assist teachers identify content to reteach or identify topics for future instruction. Testing—monitoring, ranking, and comparing student scores—has nothing directly to do with instruction. It is only assessment that potentially collects data that teachers can use in helping students learn a content or acquire a skill.

Reading tests do not always assess reading. Reading is comprehension (i.e., understanding). Learning to read means learning to look at letters and white space on a page of print and making sense. Reading instruction that makes sense requires identifying strategies that students need to learn to read more effectively. Any strategy that does not help a reader comprehend wastes the reader’s time. Regrettably, in too many classrooms reading instruction is a waste of time because teachers focus on words instead of meanings. Beginning reading instruction in almost all classrooms has little to do with reading. Instead, beginning on the first day of school, novice readers receive a daily diet of letters, letter sounds, words, and even nonsense words to practice “reading” aloud. This word-centered instruction consists of the same entrées served to young readers by the Pilgrims (Johnson, 1904).

Reading, however, is not the comprehension of words: It is the comprehension of meanings encoded in print. Reading is not identifying words or pronouncing words. Neither is reading converting letters to sounds—a perennial focus of reading teachers. Worse has been the focus on bits and pieces of words, a practice adopted long ago by U.S. public schools and endorsed by the National Reading Panel (2000), whose recommendations became provisions in No Child Left Behind (2002) and continue their presence in Common Core Standards. Often omitted during reading instruction is the real core of reading: that reading is comprehension, a lesson many students learn on their own.

Flawed reading instruction. A bits-and-pieces approach to reading instruction is based upon two erroneous assumptions about language: (a) that English is linear, and (b) that reductionism underlies English. Meaning is not the sum of individual word meanings. Language (unlike mathematics) is not linear. The sum of 1 + 4 = 5, but what is the meaning of young + boys + and + girls? There is not an unambiguous meaning. Does this four-word phrase refer (a) to young boys and young girls or (b) to young boys and girls of any age? The answer is unknowable without more context, which might require several sentences or even more. Neither do the meanings of individual words necessarily result in an unambiguous meaning.

Consider this sentence: Joe stole the red shirt. Depending upon the meaning assigned by the reader, when read aloud this sentence would sound differently based on the reader’s assumed meaning. There is no single meaning. Does the sentence mean—

  • that Joe and not Jim stole the shirt
  • that Joe stole the shirt instead of buying it
  • that Joe stole the red shirt instead of the blue shirt or
  • that Joe stole the shirt instead of the coat?

The reader will need more than this single sentence to determine the author’s intended meaning, without which correct intonation cannot be applied. Knowing short and long vowel sounds, mastering 50 phonic rules, or understanding phonemic awareness contribute nothing to reading this sentence successfully.

Reading tests seldom provide a basis for reading instruction. What do teachers do with student scores on state reading tests? A reader fails to identify one of four words without a “short vowel sound.” A reader fails to divide a word into syllables correctly. A reader fails to correctly identify the meaning of a particular word. How do readers’ errors provide useful information for subsequent reading instruction? These observations are useful only for comparing students’ scores on the same test. Responses such as these provide data to monitor, rank, and compare class, grade, school, or state test scores. But they have nothing to do directly with instruction or preparation for instruction.

Impetus for a Palm Lane Charter School is based upon spurious test scores. Only a few weeks remain for Palm Lane parents to submit the paperwork needed to receive approval from the Anaheim City School District to establish a charter school. With sufficient valid signatures and the district’s approval, a charter school will be established, but the strongest component of its foundation will be spurious tests scores, not a failing school.



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