Social media and the death of “standardized” testing

Student use of social media invalidates state and national standardized testing results. Here’s why:

When students take our state-mandated standardized assessment, CSAP, they do so within a “testing window.” This means that students are sometimes taking the test days or even weeks apart from each other in different districts across the state. Students see the exact same test items, as far as I can tell, so that all schools can be compared on an equal footing. And that’s where student use of social media begins to make things unequal.

Here’s the problem: There is an incredible focus on staff ethical practices regarding “test security” but little to no mention of how to regulate student discussions about test items.

We certainly can and do ban phones during the test so that kids taking the same test at the same time don’t text each other answers. But what happens once the test is over and students get their phones back or they go back home to their computers/iPods/etc?  A phone/electronics ban reduces direct imaging (photography) of the actual test items and direct synchronous communication during the test, but it does not stop information about the test from finding its way online.

Lets say for example that Student A runs home from their test, gets on Facebook, and updates their status to say “Whew! CSAP testing is over for today. Gee, that math section 2 sure was hard!” Maybe this is not a big deal, but what if Student B  says “Gee that science section 1 was hard! All of those questions about (_______) drove me nuts! What did you put for #3?” Other students might join the conversation and explain whatever it was that student B missed. And then we have a problem. Once information about the tests they just took is online in their Facebook status or their latest tweet it becomes a permanent, searchable, and replicable (Danah Boyd‘s terms) record of the test items and students who have not taken the test yet are the invisible, unintended audience.

Due to their friendly banter on Facebook, Students A and B and their friends have just violated three of the “ethical practices” that apply to teachers (from this year’s CDE Proctor’s Manual (pdf), pg 6-7):

Presenting items verbatim or paraphrased from the assessment (not ethical)

Telling students the correct responses or allowing them to discuss answers among themselves (not ethical)

Allowing the use of notes or other materials that may give students an unfair advantage (not ethical)

Why include the last one? They weren’t passing notes during the test! No, but what they did create is an online body of knowledge that other students who haven’t taken the test yet can use to prepare for the test. If students in Denver take the test a week before we do, I’ll bet that my students can find some interesting hints about what’s on the test.  And if we were unlucky enough to schedule our tests before others? Well, I guess we are helping them out instead. Can everyone in Colorado publish when you are going to be CSAP testing next year? ; )

Because of the asynchronous nature of the testing, and this would be especially true for nationwide testing, all of the ethical violations listed above will occur through social media and will differentially effect the outcomes of the test.  The bottom line is that no one really has “standard conditions” for test taking anymore. The outcome of these so-called “standardized” tests not only depends on your abilities in a particular subject, but also on your abilities to comb through social media sites for hints about what to expect. And what about those poorer students or entire districts who may not have access to all these wonderful “hints” about the test that are floating around Facebook and Twitter? They’re out of luck, apparently.

So how do we stop this breach of ethics and return our tests to “standard conditions?” We could ban/block Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites, but that’s been tried in a few other countries lately and doesn’t seem to work : ) We could have students sign some sort of nondisclosure statement the same as teachers do (No, really. We do.). I doubt, though, that anyone could monitor every kid’s account for possible disclosures of CSAP items. Even if we could then there would be accounts called CSAPPirate or PassMyCSAP popping up to spread information around. There is absolutely nothing to stop students from sharing information about tests that they just took with students everywhere else.

Maybe the answer lies with the testing companies.  Maybe they should (do?) create multiple versions of the test with different questions for different regions of the state or different test administration dates. I’m sure they would love to charge taxpayers for the extra work that that would add. Besides, wouldn’t that make different sets of “standard conditions?” Yuck.

I suppose we could all take the same test at the exact same time on the same date (with our phones off, of course). That would be especially fun to coordinate in the event of nationwide tests.

The question that we need to answer is this: are there ways to tell which students have received advanced knowledge of test items through their social networks? If the answer is “no,” then state and national testing is not “standardized” for our students because access to technology will, at least in part, determine their degree of success. Due to differential access to test prep programs and private tutors, testing probably hasn’t really ever been “standardized,” but social media has made it even less so.

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Chris Ludwig

Chris Ludwig is a science teacher who teaches at La Junta High School and Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado, USA.

One thought on “Social media and the death of “standardized” testing”

  1. The International Baccalaureate program has different exams for different time zones around the world long before the advent of Twitter or FaceBook. Land line phones were enough to cause concern, then e-mail and finally “social media” (what was a telephone, if not a social medium?). While each exam is different enough (some parts may be the same) to make them entirely different exams yet so similar. No one discounts the validity of those test results when scores come in over the summer (or winter depending upon your location). And, yes, schools pay a premium to have the IB program – and the quality shows.

    Kids now have the ability to swap exam archives with great ease. They had to scan in test documents a dozen years ago. Now they just grab the cd or pdf files from their Coordinator (or buy from ibo.org), upload to RapidShare and post the link in a forum.

    Maybe the low stakes for American NCLB exams make this information sharing more effort than the test is worth to them. In my career (four states), the only time kids talked about a state exam question was on the WASL — WA state. The math question had an answer that spelled out Mary Kay LeTorneau when ordered correctly. Sigh. (yes, people were fired over that one).

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