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Worries over Literacy December 27, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Information.
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assessment   In a Washington Post article on the declining reading scores of college students came the following excellent line:

“What’s disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels,” . . . added Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of education statistics. 

So why are scores of graduates declining? After years of testing in elementary, middle, and high school with an eye toward someday having scores good enough to get into university, the participants may have simply grown jaundiced and disinterested in participated in reading tests. Furthermore, why are we even bothering to test the ability of graduate students to read labels?  

It is interesting that Schneider mentions label-reading. To my recollection, this was the major rationalization for the creation of reading tests in the first place. Newspapers were awash with horror stories of people not able to read simple labels in supermarkets and high school graduates who could not fill out application forms. 

Scheider also mentions the impact of the computer. He said, “It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV.” 

I am still scratching my head over that one. He suspects that it might be a different kind of literacy involved. I suspect that we are in for a new set of tests that will challenge students to use embedded hyperlinks to find and use information among a collection of different types of texts. 

Finding information by using hyperlinks and having an understanding of what links to click is a deep part of computer literacy. One click will order a column of information, another click will send mail, another will engage an engine in a search you must define, and yet another will open a review of a product. That set of skills is encountered by even very young children reading and researching online. Within minutes a child might have to interact with the material on the screen several times. This set of skills conflicts with the inherent bias of tests to finding out what you cannot do properly. 

During interactions with the computer, if a student does not get the expected results by clicking a symbol or word, it is a simple matter of checking the instructions and clicking somewhere else again until you figure out what is needed to progress. Static paper and pencil tests are left far behind by this new skill set. Fill in a bubble incorrectly and you might find out it is incorrect months later.

Interactivity foils the goals of test writers.

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Comments»

1. David Belcheff - January 2, 2006

Another problem with fill-in-the-bubble assessments is that they measure only the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy/convergent thinking skills (1+1=2, for you & me & her & him). It is matter of laziness on the part of adults: in order to measure the higher cognitive functions, namely critical and creative thinking/divergent thinking skills, the test scorer must use her or his own higher cognitive skills…. in other words, make judgment calls based on her or his own critical thinking and assessment tools based on her or his own creative thinking, something much messier than a neat little bubble. Throw in learning styles such as Howard Gardner’s 7 kinds of intelligence and similar conclusions regarding the goals of education, and the task of assessment becomes exponentially more daunting – or exciting and challenging, depending on how you view it. We are barely at the stage of discerning between students’ abilities to read words and comprehend their meaning… get us out of here, please.
A plethora of studies that include solid longitudinal research all find links between a strong foundation in the arts and humanities and high test scores, yet the baseless perception that such curriculum is frivolous or at best a “luxury” persists. The whats & hows of testing will (must) change with advances in technology, but only policies based on an honest look at how children learn and how the higher cognitive functions can fairly be assessed will lead us out of this bubble-test nightmare that is leaching the love of learning right out of our children.


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