By April 8, 2016 Uncategorized 5 Comments

For as long as adults have subjected children to meaningless tests of trivia, there have been smart-alecky kids more than happy to illustrate the absurdity of it all.

Some just point out the obvious . . .

(Oh, c’mon ladies, you have to admit that’s a little funny!)

Other student responses are fairly witty and insightful . . .

There’s a name for students like this. Well, there’s a few terms that work, but the polite, scholarly descriptor is “mischievous responders.”

And there are some really smart people who have actually used some of their enormous acumen and seemingly limitless time to study such children.

One of them is Dr. Joseph P. Robinson-Cimpian, an Associate Professor and College of Education Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

You have to be smart with a title like that.

In 2014, Dr. Robinson-Cimpian authored an interesting research study detailing the effect mischievous responders can have on the validity of scientific surveys. In his research of various studies, he has identified the “consistent presence of a subset of adolescent responders who intentionally provide responses they think are ‘funny,’” much like the children who answered the questions above.

While Dr. Robinson-Cimpian’s analysis is primarily on the effects of mischievous responders on adolescent behavior surveys, it is easy to transfer these student tendencies to the area of standardized testing, particularly when children know the tests are not for a grade and there is no consequence for scoring poorly.

For example, tens of thousands of Oklahoma juniors will soon sit for hours to complete their End-of-Instruction (EOI) assessments in English III and Algebra II.

The majority of these students have already passed four of seven required EOI assessments needed to obtain a high school diploma. Despite this fact, Oklahoma law REQUIRES them to take these additional tests, even though they won’t be part of any grade and colleges have little  interest in their scores.

Many of these same students also recently participated in the free administration of the ACT, a test that does have real meaning for most colleges and high school students.

Another example is the many field tests to which we subject students in our state. In February, thousands of 5th- and 8th-grade students were required to participate in field testing for the state writing assessment–a test for which they, their teacher, and their parents will NEVER see the results.

Both of these scenarios are ripe for abuse by those rascally mischievous responders we all have in our schools.

Dr. Robinson-Cimpian provides the following conclusion:

The presence of a small group of mischievous responders can have a dramatic effect on disparity estimates, as was demonstrated here with disparities based on sexual identity, gender identity, and physical disability, as well as in other empirical studies on adoption, physical disability, and foreign-born status (Fan et al., 2002, 2006). The sensitivity-analysis methods introduced in this article may serve as easily implementable checks on the validity of the conclusions drawn concerning a broad range of adolescent disparities. The consistent application of such sensitivity analyses is likely to improve our ability to produce sound research that enhances effective policy making for adolescent well-being.

Okay, he’s a university researcher–they talk this way. Here is my translation of Robinson-Cimpian’s research:

  1. A certain percentage of adolescents are smart-asses.
  2. These children are prone to use meaningless surveys and tests as a means to show off their smart-assiness to adults.
  3. This fact distorts the results of any such survey or test, sometimes significantly.
  4. Therefore, we should be careful using any instrument which necessitates significant input from smart-ass adolescents in making any major conclusions or decisions.

This conclusion is problematic for those people who worship at the altar of the almighty Big Standardized (BS) test, particularly the organizations that create them.

You see, the foundational belief of the testing industry–the cement on which every other piece of this reformy structure rests–is the HUGE assumption that any child who takes one of their tests will take it seriously.

The folks making six-figure salaries for testing vendors like Pearson, ETS, CTB/McGraw-Hill, and Measured Progress believe that  children OWE them their loyalty by giving their best effort to this annual exercise: “By God, we’ve worked hard to craft these beautiful measures of student learning, the very least you could do is show your appreciation by doing your best.”

This presumption is so strong in their mind that because this is such self-evidently important work, that they cannot imagine anybody not seeing its value.

These folks live in a magical land where every child is loved, comes to school eager to learn, and loves to sit quietly for hours taking multiple choice tests on a laptop, while unicorns frolic with elves in rainbow-laden fields.

Children are smarter than this. They understand the reality that these tests are simply a means to sort, rank, humiliate and punish kids through various forms of public shaming, things like grade retention, denial of a high school diploma, and forced placement in “remediation” classes.

The testing companies say kids should love these swell assessments because they were crafted with their best interests in mind.

Of course, parents and students have to be made to believe this because otherwise, what’s the purpose of it all?

If a student is bored or tired or hungry or distracted or scared or neglected or angry or sad or just doesn’t care or doesn’t see any point or just feels like playing video games or listening to loud music or playing basketball or singing songs or painting a picture or checking out the hot girl two rows over or thinks that high-stakes testing is stupid or prefers to write open-ended answers in the form of rap lyrics or long rambling run-on sentences like this   .   .   .   if that happens, every single piece of precious data derived from these test results, ranging  from A-F report cards, to teacher VAM evaluations, to student growth calculations, to all of it is craptacular crap.

As Robinson-Cimpian discovered, the more students who fail to take these tests seriously, the higher the likelihood the results will lack statistical validity and reliability.

And if large numbers of parents refuse to allow their children to participate in these assessments, those results become even more meaningless.

Even the most ardent fans of standardized testing recognize the precarious nature of asking students to take tests that have little personal meaning to them.

This is precisely why they have to make the tests “high stakes” and threaten students with driver’s licenses and high school diplomas. This is why we have to set the tone by scaring eight-year-olds with fear of retention–so they learn their lesson early.  This is why we tell our teachers to say inspiring things and participate in school-wide testing pep assemblies.

We do these things because we know there is no earthly reason for students to take any of this testing nonsense seriously. In his study, Robinson-Cimpian estimates that about 12% of responders intentionally give misleading answers. Knowing young adolescents like I do, I think that number might be larger than that.

The entire enterprise is just further evidence that the whole model of analyzing what’s inside a person’s head by asking them standardized  test questions is just a failed, misguided joke. Mischievous responders see the duplicity, and respond accordingly.

In conclusion, spring testing begins in Oklahoma this Monday. Remember to tell your kids to get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, drink plenty of water, and maybe suck on a peppermint.

Oh, and remind them that if they get stuck on a question, don’t over think it.

Sometimes the correct answer is the most obvious one.

Happy testing season, kids!

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