Test-Basher Speak

Test-Basher Speak

Test-Basher Speak

Richard P. Phelps

The empirical research evidence doesn’t work for them, so testing opponents have built a vocabulary to suit their needs. Their vocabulary is misleading when used in the public domain, but...that may be its purpose. Testing opponents take common, ordinary words and give them alternate definitions. Then, they use those words in the public domain, leaving the public to think they are using the common, ordinary definition, when they are not. “Rote Recall,” for example, is used to describe the response to any test item with a multiple-choice response format, no matter how complex the question or complicated the process required to get from the question to the correct answer.

Much anti-testing “research” amounts to little more than name-calling. Some tracts hundreds of pages long consist of nothing more than the use of bad-sounding words to describe standardized testing and good-sounding words to describe its absence. They contain no data, no analysis, just rhetoric. But, they call it research. Below, I list some of the terms they use, and attempt to explain them.

The reader should realize, however, that anti-testing vocabulary, as large as it is, comprises merely a subset of a much larger “insiders” vocabulary that pervades all of U.S. education. E.D. Hirsch provides a “Critical Guide to Educational Terms and Phrases” in his book The Schools We Need & Why We Don’t Have Them:

“Education Terminology Every Parent Must Understand

“Teachers and administrators use jargon which is sometimes unfamiliar to parents. When faced with strange jargon, parents are reluctant to ask questions or debate educators for fear of sounding ignorant. When parents do gather the courage to argue, educators sometimes use their jargon against us. For example, if you were to express a desire for traditional teaching methods, the teacher may use pejorative terminology to thwart your complaints. You may be told that traditional education is ‘just’ drill and kill or rote-learning. The implication is that you are misguided, ignorant of childrens' developmental processes, and perhaps even mean-spirited. Then the teacher tells you: ‘We are a child-centered school, so we do not use those old-fashioned methods anymore because research has shown that our child-friendly methods are better.’

“This use of jargon implies that the teacher cares more about your child's education than you do. After all, the teacher has been trained to use the most progressive methods available, so his or her knowledge on this subject shouldn't be questioned. What the teacher neglects to tell you is that the ‘research’ she refers to is not necessarily supported by mainstream scientific inquiry (i.e., published in scientific journals within a specific discipline such as psychology).

“By using terminology that has either negative- or positive-sounding connotations, educators can succeed in silencing your opposition, simply because you don't understand the meaning of the words and phrases. Therefore, you should arrive at the teacher conference knowing the language teachers speak, just as you would have to do if you visited a foreign country.”

An Anti-Testing Vocabulary

Authentic Teaching--(see Real Learning)

Better Tests--Usually, testing opponents mean tests without stakes for anyone--teacher, student, school, school system--because stakes “corrupt” the natural learning process. They also usually mean classroom testing only, and classroom tests without any multiple-choice test items.

Cheap Fix--(see Silver Bullet)

Complex Topics--That which is taught in the absence of common academic standards and high-stakes standardized tests. (see also Real Learning)

Corruption--Based on the assumption that whatever happens in the classroom absent any “outside” influence is natural and ideal, any deviation from what a teacher is “naturally” inclined to do is labeled a “corruption.” Since standardized tests hold teachers to following common standards, the tests induce teachers to change (i.e., “corrupt”) their behavior from what it would be in the natural ideal. By this definition, any teacher behavior in the absence of standards is “uncorrupted.” This could include discussing yesterday’s television shows or basketball game or any of a teacher’s pet topics. Any instruction related to academic standards, however, is “corruption” unless it is instruction a teacher would “normally” have pursued absent common standards. In a system where every teacher has been free to structure classes any way they pleased, the adoption of common standards is likely to lead to a large amount of corruption. (see also, Pollution)

Creative, Productive Learning Environments--(see Real Learning)

Craze, the Testing--The act of administering external, standardized tests.

Cure-All, Ultimate--(see Silver Bullet)

Curriculum Distortion--(see Real Leaning)

De-Democratizing--(see Democratic)

Democratic (decision-making, discourse, control, etc.) in education--Letting the “professionals” make education policy decisions. Testing opponents argue that any outside influence on what a public school on its own “naturally” desires to do impedes “democracy.” Opponents of common academic standards and standardized tests like to paint a picture of lots of student and parent involvement in every aspect of school operations, including the academic content in each classroom. Only in other contexts will they admit the minimal level of parent involvement in school activities, or the virtual absence of any parent involvement in choosing course content (textbook publishers choose course content absent common standards). Interestingly, most testing opponents define school choice--the process of allowing students and parents to choose the school they believe to be most appropriate to their needs and preferences--as “anti-democratic.” School choice is described with words and phrases such as “corporate,” “market-driven,” and “treating schools like products on a shelf.”

De-Professionalization of Teaching--(see De-Skilling)

De-Skilling--This term means close to the opposite of what most would probably think it means. Most people think of the term “skill” to mean the mastery of a routine or technique, as in: fighter pilots and surgeons are highly-skilled professionals who have spent many hours practicing their routines and techniques. Many testing opponents think of a teacher’s “skill” to mean something close to the opposite of that. In their preferred philosophy of radical constructivism, a good teacher does not provide knowledge or “instruct” students. Rather, a good teacher is a “facilitator” (i.e., a “guide on the side” and not a “sage on the stage”) who helps each student “construct” his or her own knowledge. A good teacher, then, in their view, does not employ instructional techniques or routines, because a good teacher does not “instruct” at all. Because teachers under pressure to improve student achievement (in the face of standardized tests, for example) tend to use methods that work best to improve student achievement...and because those methods tend to be teacher-centered and not student-centered (i.e., not “constructivist”) ...standardized tests cause teachers to be “de-skilled.” Again, the decades worth of evidence from randomized experiments, showing that instructional techniques with highly-structured lessons and lots of drill and practice significantly improve student achievement, while radical constructivist techniques do not, is either discounted or ignored by testing opponents. (see also Rich Curriculum)

Drills--Any instruction that takes place in classrooms where common academic standards and high-stakes standardized tests have influence. The fact that many teachers in environments with high-stakes tests still use Socratic methods (e.g., class discussion, question-and-answer format) is defined to not exist. Again, the decades worth of evidence from randomized experiments, showing that instructional techniques with highly-structured lessons and lots of drill and practice more reliably improve student achievement than radical constructivist techniques, is either discounted or ignored by testing opponents.

Drill-and-Kill--(see Drills)

Expert, Testing--Someone who opposes testing. Usually an education school professor.

Higher-Order Thinking--A grab-bag of cognitive processes alleged to be related to creativity, such as lateral thinking and meta-analysis. It is sometimes alleged that standardized tests cannot test higher-order thinking. More often, it is alleged that standardized tests with multiple-choice response formats cannot test higher-order thinking (but open-ended response formats can). Some famous higher-order thinkers: Albert Einstein, Walter Mitty. (see also Rote Recall)

How Children Learn, What We Know About--(see Real Learning) Independent Researchers--Testing opponents who are, in most cases, education professors with much to gain personally from an absence of high-stakes standardized tests (e.g., they can teach and research anything they please without regard to improving student achievement), claim that they are “independent researchers.” Further, they claim that testing advocates, whom they allege to be “politicians,” are not “independent” because they have a self-interest in misleading the public about the state of our public schools in order to win votes.

Innovative--Is what you like, and is always good, no matter what the consequences.

Integrate Concepts and Topics--Allegedly, standardized testing makes it impossible to integrate concepts and topics. (see also Real Learning)

Lake Wobegon--Phrase to describe test-score inflation (in Lake Wobegon, “all the children are above average”). Refers to a phenomenon in the 1980s where, after a number of years of use, the average student score on a certain commercial standardized test was above average in every state using the test. The causes included: schools reusing old copies of the same version of the test (with which teachers had become familiar); the test publisher waiting too long before “renorming” the test; and the fact that student achievement really was improving throughout the 1980s. The test administration problems that contributed to the Lake Wobegon effect are easily controlled and not relevant to the conditions under which current state standards-based high-stakes tests are administered. Testing opponents, however, want us to believe that the Lake Wobegon effect is inevitable to any standardized test use, uncontrollable, and will always be us.

Legislated Learning--Academic standards.

Mania, Testing--The act of administering external, standardized tests.

Meaningful Forms of Assessment--(see Better Tests)

Multiple Intelligences--Posits the truism that different people have different intellectual strengths and may learn best in different ways. The current guru of this line of thought, Howard Gardner, an avid opponent of high-stakes standardized testing, asserts that there are more than several different kinds of “intelligences,” and by emphasizing one or the other in our standardized tests, we are being unfair to the others. Most standardized tests, Gardner asserts, focus on logic and analysis and neglect other intelligences, perfectly legitimate in their own right, such as the “kinetic” intelligence of dancers. Ending this bias toward logic and analysis and giving equal time to each of the other “intelligences” might, indeed, help to alleviate our American society’s oversupply of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and satisfy its shortage of artists, dancers, and athletes.

Narrowing the Curriculum--Test critics often accuse high-stakes tests of "narrowing the curriculum," but only the amount of instructional time available can narrow it. There is only so much instructional time available and choices must be made as to how it is used. If the critics intend to continue asserting that non-tested subjects are being dropped, they should show evidence that student requirements for taking music, art, language, or other non-tested subjects are being dropped. Some critics claim that a narrowing of curriculum occurs in the primary grades, where individual teachers are responsible for all subjects, and so could, on their own, spend less time on, say, music and art to the benefit of the more frequently tested subjects. In principal, a school system could implement high-stakes tests in art, music, language, and civics, too, or in any other subject considered important. Attaching high-stakes to tests in some subjects and not others would be interpreted by most as a signal that the former subjects are considered to be more important. Likely, more effort will be expended in teaching the former subjects as a result among teachers, like those at the primary level, who have a choice of emphasis. In those cases where the students are, indeed, woefully deficient in basic skills and need extra instructional time devoted to them, however, probably few parents would object. Primary school students may need to establish a foundation in reading, writing, and arithmetic before they can learn anything else well later on. Poll results show clearly that the public wants students to master the basics skills first, before they go on to explore the rest of the possible curriculum. If that means they must spend more time on the basics, so be it.

Obsession, Test--The act of administering external, standardized tests.

One Size Fits All--Phrase used to criticize any effort to standardize curriculum or instruction, and often used in anti-testing tracts. Note that the phrase is not used in conjunction with discussions of public education governance or ability grouping. The same folks rabidly against the “standardizing” aspect of testing seem perfectly happy with a “one size fits all” public education system and grade progression. Indeed, to propose otherwise is attacked as elitist. (Thus, the phrase is used hypocritically as well as fallaciously. The fallacy is that standardized tests do not impose “one size” on any student’s learning or thinking. A student can arrive at an answer to a test question any way she wishes to. It is the subject matter itself that imposes “one size” on the material. Unless, of course, one wants to argue that every student has a right to create his or her own rules of mathematics and English grammar, and should only be judged by his or her own, unique, individualized subject matter.)

Perverse Effects--(see Unintended Consequences)

Political Not Educational, Standardized Testing is...--Most testing opponents ignore the cornucopia of evidence for standardized testing’s benefits and public popularity--they simply talk and write as if they do not exist, as their existence is extremely inconvenient to their arguments. The mass of evidence of standardized testing’s benefits tends to exist outside of some education professors’ research world--in psychology and economics papers and articles, for example. Certainly, education professors who are testing opponents do not spend their time looking for standardized testing’s benefits. Given the myopic insistence on no evidence of benefits, then, testing opponents argue that the only reason for having high-stakes standardized testing is “political”--“politicians,” they argue, have a self-interest in misleading the public about the state of our public schools in order to win votes. Standardized tests, then, are solely a “political” devise whose purpose is to make the public schools look bad; standardized tests have no educational purpose whatsoever, according to them.

Pollution--Similar to the concept of “corruption,” the term “pollution” is used more commonly to apply to test scores. Based, again, on the assumption that whatever happens in the classroom absent standardized testing is natural and ideal, any deviation from what a teacher is “naturally” inclined to do is judged to be wrong. The practices of “teaching to the test,” “narrowing the curriculum,” and the like, caused by standardized tests, allegedly result in test scores that are “polluted.”

Problem-Solving--Just another phrase for responses to open-ended test items. By definition, any test item with a multiple-choice response format cannot involve problem-solving. So, for example, finding the answer to the test item--“How many cubic centimeters are contained in a box 2 meters wide by 3 meters long by 4 meters tall? a) 23.4 thousand b) 24 million c) 0. 24 d) 24 e) none of the above”--cannot involve “problem solving” because the response format is multiple choice. If the response format were open-ended (i.e., just a blank space on the test sheet), it could involve “problem solving.”

Quality of What is Taught, Decline in the...--(see Real Learning)

Quick Fix--(see Silver Bullet)

Real Education--(see Real Learning)

Real Learning--Many, if not most, testing opponents are believers in radical constructivist philosophy, despite the weak evidence that radical constructivist teaching methods improve student achievement. They prefer teaching methods where each student “constructs” his or her own knowledge in his or her own personal way without “interference” from the teacher. They claim that students only “really learn” if they “construct their own knowledge.” Thus, “teacher-centered” classrooms, where teachers give students information, cannot induce “real learning.” Because teachers under pressure to improve student achievement (in the face of standardized tests, for example) tend to use the methods that work best to improve student achievement...and because those methods tend to be teacher-centered and not student-centered...standardized tests impede “real learning.”

Real Teaching--Any teaching that occurs in the absence of standardized testing.

Rich Curriculum--Defined to be any academic content used in the absence of standardized testing. Most testing opponents like to argue that, in the absence of enforced common academic standards, each teacher is using his or her own professional judgement to devise a unique curriculum crafted to the unique needs of each unique student in each unique classroom. That is the radical constructivist ideal. They fail to mention, as most teachers would tell, that this ideal is physically impossible to implement. No human teacher is capable of doing all the work this ideal requires, and no classroom can possibly be managed in the manner the ideal requires. In other contexts, these testing opponents will acknowledge that, in the absence of enforced common academic standards, the vast majority of teachers use the curriculum plan of the textbooks they’ve chosen or been assigned and do not craft individual learning plans for each student and create new curriculum every day that is tailored to those plans. Interestingly, most of the same critics who argue for adapting instruction uniquely to each unique student oppose ability grouping, which combines students in a way that makes a teacher’s instructional focus much easier.

Rote Memorization--(related to Rote Recall and Drills)

Rote Recall--What a student does in responding to any test item in objective response format (e.g., multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank), no matter how complex the cognitive processing required to get from the question to the correct answer. In a presidential speech at an annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, for example, a leading testing opponent offered this test item as an example of one that required “rote recall:” “James had 5 cents. He earned 13 cents more and then bought a top for 10 cents. How much money did he have left? Answer:___________ “ Most people would think that “rote recall” means a regurgitation of a memorized fact. By that common definition, this question could only demand rote recall if it and its correct answer had been memorized. Short of that, the average student would need to do some calculation, and some cognitive processing that incorporated learned procedures, in order to find the correct answer. Is the misleading way in which testing opponents use the term designed to misrepresent the content of standardized tests to the public? That’s my guess.

Silver Bullet--Anti-testing researchers often claim that testing advocates believe high-stakes standardized are a.... I have read probably over a thousand articles and essays on testing policy at this point, and I have yet to read any testing advocate claim that high-stakes testing alone will solve all our country’s education problems.

Special Interest Groups--Alleged to be business groups only. It is not entertained as possible that testing opponents could represent special interests. They identify themselves as “independent” researchers. It is also usually not mentioned by testing opponents that the overwhelming majority of the public, of parents, of students, and, with certain exceptions, of teachers, want common academic standards and high-stakes standardized tests.

Teaching to the Test--Usually means any instruction on subject matter that is covered by a test. Generally, testing opponents’ cry of “teaching to the test” is obfuscation. Teaching to the test is only a problem when students are tested on material they have not been taught. When students are tested on material they have been taught, any teacher not teaching to the test is behaving irresponsibly. It may be for this reason that, despite testing opponents’ (largely successful) efforts to convince journalists that teaching to the test is a horrible practice, parents continue to tell pollsters that, of course, they want their students’ teachers to teach to the test. Opponents’ arguments beg the question: would they prefer a test so obscure in structure and content that teachers cannot help students prepare for it?

Test Preparation--Defined to mean any instruction related to the content of a standardized test. In states with common academic standards and high-stakes tests aligned to those standards, all instruction will be related to the content of the tests. Thus, by testing opponents’ definition, all instruction is bad, inferior to the natural instruction or, rather, “construction” of knowledge they allege takes place in classrooms unaffected by standardized tests.

Test-Prep Materials--Any instructional materials used in classrooms influenced by standardized testing.

Test-Score Inflation--(see Lake Wobegon)

Unintended Consequences--Just another way of saying that standardized tests are not perfect instruments of social engineering (e.g., students who score poorly might get hurt feelings, or be held back a grade). Everybody who has ever attended school, however, knows this already. Testing opponents take the concept a bit further in two respects: in their idealization of the “natural” education process in which teachers and schools are left alone to do whatever they please; and in their insistence that standardized tests should not be allowed in use until they are perfect and have no “unintended consequences.”

Validity--“Validity” is a term commonly used by testing experts that relates to the degree a test score represents what is it supposed to represent. The SAT and ACT, for example, are supposed to help predict academic performance in the first year of college, so students’ scores on those tests should be well-correlated with their grades from their first year at college. High school exit exams are, usually, supposed to represent student mastery of the academic material covered in the high school years. Many new types of “validities” have proliferated in recent years, however, and some testing opponents have invented validities that tests they do not like are certain to fail.

Nonpartisan Education Review HOME