As the school year begins, the first round of standardized tests follows close behind. In education today, high stakes standardized testing is a predominate way to hold schools, administrators, teachers, and students accountable. This post gives a run down of what is lost when we focus so much time, money, and energy on one type of assessment.
To be fair, standardized testing does have some positives:
- Pretesting. A short assessment quickly assesses if students already know material.
- Memorized facts. What’s 7×8? Where’s the cell nucleus in this diagram? Standardized tests show memorization of facts.
- Comparing scores. Comparing scores has its place, but a student’s place within a class, school, state, or nation is less important than what student, parents, and teachers know about the student.
- Cheap, compared to paying humans to double score complex assessments.
- Less scoring error and bias.
- Some students excel at this type of assessment.
Teachers can choose other assessments to evaluate progress, including: Essays; informal writing; presentations; portfolios; observations; discussions; practice problems; experiments; self assessments; reflections; and creating artwork, music, or machines. Effective educators assess varying formality and format.
A sampling of the aforementioned assessments can foster the qualities listed below, all of which extensive standardized testing inhibits:
- Collaboration. On a standardized test, that’s cheating, but work in classrooms and work places is often collaborative.
- Revision. Standardized testing gives few opportunities to learn from mistakes. It dismisses the tremendous merit in redoing work until it’s the best possible.
- Curiosity. Excepting for the Hermione Grangers out there, tests squash curiosity. Furthermore, the prescribed scope and sequence disallows teachers to follow student curiosity.
- Deep understanding. Standardized tests cover set material. Out of fairness to students, teachers must teach all that material before the test date, often resulting in breadth over depth.
- Authentic learning situations. Instead of writing, talking, or creating to learn, students repeat the same tasks to display what they have learned. Tests aren’t authentic learning situations, and thus do not mirror how students will utilize their learning to solve real problems.
- Multiple perspectives. Extensive testing teaches students to look for the one right answer, rather than explore possibilities.
- Unmeasurable learning. A standardized test will never measure if a teacher has challenged a student the most deeply.
Other problems with standardized testing:
- A perfect test will never exist. Test writers take years to write a standardized test, but even still, it will never fully be rid of all biases because it cannot adapt.
- Snap shot of one day. Maybe a student is distracted by a family situation, a runny nose, or the fidgety kid next to him. Maybe a student masters the material a week, or day, or hour later. That’s irrelevant to a standardized test. The score is final. While a teacher gives students multiple opportunities to show mastery, a standardized test is limited to the few minutes the child works on that particular question.
- Special education concerns. Standardizing assessment directly conflicts with special education students’ legal rights to tailor education to their needs.
- Loss of differentiation and teacher autonomy. To achieve high scores, some states and districts micromanage content through scripted lessons or Common Core aligned textbooks.
- Funding and teacher evaluations. How well students preform on one type of assessment shouldn’t affect a school’s funding or a teacher’s pay or job security. Such connections only increase the anxiety and stress, and lead educators to make poor choices out of panic.
- Emotional cost. High stakes testing causes anxiety and stress for students. It is physically exhausting. Then, add the negative emotions associated with poor performance. While teens can own responsibility for failure, Kindergarteners should not.
- Data mining. I haven’t seen conclusive evidence data mining will occur with Common Core testing, but the possibility is scary.
- Cost. These tests need to be purchased by schools and are not cheap. That money could be used locally for salaries, building improvements, or learning materials and programs.
- Power. A handful of companies make the tests, and these companies also make the textbooks. Who are we letting choose the curriculum for our schools? What authority do these individuals have and how are they held accountable for their work?
For all these reasons, I’m happy when standardized testing and I do not cross paths. In a position that forced me to merely teach to a test, the real test would be of my integrity. I’d be forced to become Mr Keating in Dead Poet’s Society: A teacher who stands up for students and true learning, but quickly becomes unemployed.