Yes, Virginia



Exhibits_Online_YesVirginia_HN-1897-005154BVIRGINIA, your friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see on cable news and read on social media platforms. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by our little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether in red states or in blue states, rich or poor, qualitative or quantitative are little. In this great universe of ours we are a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a value to state tests. State tests have value as certainly as smoke detectors, dashboard lights, and annual physical exams have value, and you know that those things have value even when they do nothing but silently indicate that there is no problem at hand. Alas! how dreary would be the world, VIRGINIA, if a situation arose and you were without those tools. It would be dreary indeed if there were no VIRGINIA. We would have no enjoyment. Your eternal light which fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in the value of state tests. You might as well not believe in the value of state standards, the state department of education, or the state itself. Without state tests would we rely on childlike faith that your friends in state agencies would have the information they need to function effectively, to provide support and assistance to those who need it most. Yes, there are other ways to collect the information provided by state tests. The Commissioner could hire a cadre of people to observe in all the schools one day or periodically throughout the year. You could ask teachers to evaluate student proficiency and have schools report that information directly to the state (either for individual students or in aggregate), but even if those efforts did provide the same information as state tests, what would that prove?  Would confirmation of information gained from short, low-stakes state tests indicate that they have no value?

Your friends say that state tests don’t provide teachers, parents, and students with any information that they don’t already have. That is neither a problem nor a sign that state tests have no value. No VIRGINIA, that is the ideal. The causes for alarm are the cases (hopefully rare) when there is a significant difference between the evaluation of student performance conducted by the teacher and the information provided by the state test. Differences in the expected performance of individual students can often easily be explained but should never be explained away. Significant differences between expected and actual performance for subgroups of students or the whole school indicate a serious issue. The conflict could indicate a problem with the state test or the state achievement standards. That could be the case, but most often it is not.

You may hear that state tests do not provide enough information about individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. That argument is specious. It is but a straw person or red herring.  Providing detailed information to inform instruction of individual students is not the purpose of state tests, it never has been the purpose of state tests, and it never should be the purpose of state tests. A 40-item comprehensive state test is not a source of solid information about student mastery of individual state standards or competencies. Even if it were, mastery of such individual components such as standards or competencies is so very different than being proficient in their application and use – which a good state test is designed to measure. The whole (i.e., proficiency), VIRGINIA, is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also is a fundamentally different concept and construct than each of its parts.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but the rattle’s essence is destroyed and its value as a tool to support the child’s development is lost when it is torn apart. The same is true, VIRGINIA, of a state test. We may never be able to peel back the veil to fully understand beauty and joy – words that come together to form an inspirational poem, a sequence of notes a hit song, colors and brush strokes a masterpiece, or a series of test items an effective measure of student proficiency, but they do. Is a proficiency rating or an overall scale score all that there is? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there was never a need to ask anything more of state tests.

Can state tests and testing policies be improved? Of course, VIRGINIA, we are all unfinished products. On this date in 1903, six years after the original letter from Virginia,  the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, powered flight. A mere six decades later, two people landed on the surface of the moon in a vehicle that could not have been more different from the original Wright Flyer in so many respects, but one that was equally fragile and deliberately and carefully designed to perform a single, specific purpose within a larger mission. We are now in the infancy of computer-based state testing. Oh, what a waste it would be if we cannot achieve that same level of  progress in state testing over the next six decades.

No value to state tests! OMG! They have value now, and people like you will ensure that they will have value forever.  A thousand years from now, VIRGINIA, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, state tests will continue to be an important part of navigating students successfully through childhood.

Header image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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