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January 07, 2017

Mike Ritchie

Pros and Cons Series, Part 1: Standardized Testing

Topics: STEAM

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This post is part of a new blog series where two authors present the pro and con side of a relevant topic – this week, that topic is standardized testing in American education. If you like (or dislike) the format, or just want to get involved in the conversation, please leave a comment below or on our Facebook page!

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By Sophie Miller

Pro

In recent years an ‘opt-out’ movement has grown around standardized testing in education. According to FairTest.org, complaints about standardized testing include the following: overuse and misuse of tests damages public education, test results can be used to harm students, teachers and schools if they lead to an ‘underperforming’ label, and that “these tests are frequently used in ways that do not reflect the abilities of students of color, English language learners, children with disabilities, and low-income youth.”

It’s helpful to first divide this issue into two parts. First, should we have standardized testing at all? And second, if so, what form should the testing take?

In my opinion, the answer to the first question must be yes. Given the impact a good or bad education can have on a child’s future, and the taxpayer funding given to schools, it’s necessary for parents, taxpayers and the government itself to be able to track progress using an objective measure. There simply is not an alternative to a standardized test in some format, especially given the size of the country.

Another common objection to standardized testing is that it forces teachers to ‘teach to the test,’ which interferes with other curriculum and harms the overall quality of education. While this is a reasonable concern, it’s not a reason to argue against the concept of standardized testing. Given that standardized tests are supposed to serve as a measuring stick for knowledge and skills that will help children succeed in their future, teaching to the test is a perfectly valid, and even desirable, classroom activity. Now, it may be true that certain standardized tests do not, in fact, appropriately measure relevant skills. If this is the case then focus should be directed to reforming the test rather than doing away with it. It’s also important to consider that a standardized test on any subject does, by definition, measure at least a few relevant skills; the ability to focus on and learn specific material, meet a deadline, and overcome any stress or fear of failure that might hold you back. These are all necessary skills in college and the job market, and life in general, regardless of the field or subject.

As stated above, FairTest.org claims that standardized tests “are frequently used in ways that do not reflect the abilities of students of color, English language learners, children with disabilities, and low-income youth,” in reference to the well-publicized achievement gap in American education. Let’s imagine for a second that standardized testing did not exist. How would we know that an achievement gap existed at all? How would we determine whether or not attempts to fix it were successful? An effective standardized testing system is the only way that we can identify and address problems of this nature.

Standardized testing, when used correctly, is one of the most valuable evaluative tools in education. While there are many valid objections to some of the specific ways in which standardized testing has been used, efforts to change the system would be wise to focus on the tests themselves and how they’re implemented, and not work to get rid of testing altogether.

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By Mike Ritchie

Con

In 2015, the White House posted a video of President Obama on their Facebook page (I didn’t know it was a thing either) lamenting the proliferation of standardized testing in schools around the country. “In moderation,” President Obama cautions, “smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school. It can help them learn. But I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students.”

President Obama isn’t wrong to worry about the sheer amount of testing, and the time that goes into it, that American students undergo over the course of their educations. A 2015 study of testing in public schools concluded that, between the grades of Kindergarten and 12th grade, students took an average of 112 standardized tests. This statistic results in children as young as five and six years old regularly, and far more than annually, suffering the increased levels of test anxiety that standardized assessments yield in students, particularly those on the younger end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, teachers and educators feel the stress of having to administer standardized testing nearly as much as their students do. Taking the time to prep students towards a certain standard, diverting attention away from the curriculum that they carefully designed, and having the patience to administer long tests to kids with heightened levels of performance anxiety drains many teachers of their enthusiasm for their profession.

It would be one thing if standardized tests focused on what students learn in their classrooms or centered around teaching in a flexible manner that worked for every type of learner. But research has shown that high performance on the SAT and other standardized tests does not necessarily correlate with good grades in school or even with levels of intelligence. One study terms this inconsistency the difference between “crystallized intelligence” and “fluid intelligence.” Crystallized intelligence is gained through learning and mastering skills in a certain area and within a finite scope. Fluid intelligence centers around extrapolating a solution to a new problem from knowledge that one already has. Researchers found that while students who scored high on the SAT exhibited excellent examples of crystallized intelligence in the particular skills needed to excel on the test, SAT scores showed no correlation with students’ fluid intelligence. So our schools, in teaching towards certain standards of education, utilize many of their resources, including time in school and at home doing schoolwork, to establish crystallized intelligence skills in students and fail to prepare them to consider concepts more broadly and abstractly.

How are we to evaluate students’ performance, across a variety of educational backgrounds and environments, without issuing a standardized assessment? Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, decided to do away with its application requirement for SAT and ACT scores. Since eliminating this hurdle for its applicants, the college admissions board has noticed some favorable changes in the type of students that their school attracts. While “the quantity of applications went down, the quality went up,” claimed Hampshire President Jonathan Lash, in a statement he issued on the matter in 2015. He finds that, since dropping test scores from the college’s priorities, Hampshire’s incoming classes “collectively were more motivated, mature, disciplined and consistent in their high school years than past applicants,” representing a broader range of interests and learning styles. In their application, Hampshire instead focused on high school grades, an admittedly subjective metric for student achievement and intelligence, and a series of essays covering a number of topics, implemented in an effort to encourage students to showcase their individuality and intelligence beyond what a simple SAT score might provide. It worked.

In summary, perhaps my argument is not against standardized tests in general but against the way our schools are using and focusing on them. Standardized testing, especially in the younger years, is about far more than testing a student’s aptitude – it helps the state and federal organizations to determine the quality of teachers and schools, and identify where improvements need to be made. The downfall is that, while evaluating teachers and schools, standardized testing takes away from the education of the child. Issuing fewer and more carefully researched standardized tests, and evaluating students on more telling merits, such as grades and essays, might help in reducing the volume and stress of standardized testing plaguing the educational life of today’s students.

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