January 13, 2023

P. L. Thomas: Test based achievement mirages

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Paul Thomas is a scholar and educator who joins the group of observers noting that there’s a huge failing in the rosy picture of Florida’s NAEP scores. 4th grade may look great these days, but the drop between 4th and 8th grade is huge. But Thomas moves on to address the entire issue of test based education reform.

So here is the dirty little secret about education reform and education policy.

First, test data are weak reflections of learning, and how we measure learning significantly impacts those scores.

Next, at the earlier grades, testing tends to reflect reductive versions of skills. For example, many states test pronunciation of nonsense words (thus, there is no meaning or comprehension) and call that “reading.”

Research for decades has shown that systematic phonics instruction can raise those scores, especially for young students, but that increase in pronunciation is not correlated with comprehension and that advantage disappears by middle school.

There is a similar pattern to how grade retention can raise test scores in the short term but those retained students fall behind again in a few years and are more likely to drop out.

In short, increased test scores in the early grades are often test-based achievement mirages, not increased learning.

As students and assessments become more sophisticated, these early increases are much harder to maintain for a number of reasons—some related to brain and overall development, and some related to teaching and learning conditions as well as instructional challenges.

This reckoning for Florida is a clarion call for all education reform across the U.S.


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