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Testing What Matters Least

By Maika Yeigh, Andie Cunningham, Ruth Shagoury

We clutched our printed-out paper tickets in one hand and driver’s licenses in the other, passing both to the grim attendant who directed us to our seats. In case these documents had changed in the 15 seconds it took to walk to our assigned seats, she checked them again and instructed us to leave them on the desk for her continued access. We felt like we were about to embark on some weird plane trip. As it turns out, it was quite a trip—into the bizarre world of standardized testing for adult professionals, in our case, the Praxis test for reading specialists.

We are three professors of literacy in a teacher education program that leads to a reading endorsement. Our graduates are reading specialists, literacy coaches, and district language arts specialists—but only if, in addition to the coursework and practicum experience that make up our National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) certified reading program, they also pass the Praxis Reading Specialist Test. Like any students approaching a high-stakes test, the adults we work with are anxious about the Praxis, a two-hour, 120-question, multiple-choice, gatekeeper test for their chosen positions as literacy leaders.

From their reports, we had become increasingly concerned about what seems to be a very narrow focus of this professional test. We decided it was time for us to embark on a journey into the two-dimensional world of the Praxis test.

We discovered that, at best, the Praxis test measures the least important aspects of professional knowledge. At worst, it reinforces harmful ideas about the profession: that reading specialists and literacy coaches should “know their place,” not buck the system, and certainly not encourage their colleagues to critique the standardized tests that dominate our profession.

A Political Subtext to the Test

The Praxis test we took showed no understanding of the intended use of standardized tests, and even reinforced misuse of large-scale testing results. A telling test item asked what the reading specialist should do with state assessment results. One answer option was for the specialist to put the results into teacher mailboxes. Another choice was to use the results to group students for instruction. There was no answer that implied that standardized assessment scores should be used as just one piece of collected data regarding student learning. As test takers, we were forced to choose which wrong answer seemed the least offensive, or guess what was in the test maker’s mind. How could this be a thoughtful way to evaluate a potential reading specialist’s understanding of the role of standardized testing data?

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