Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Truth about Standardized Testing

It strikes fear into the heart of every student from elementary to high school. When students hear it their pulses rise, their hairs stands up, and beads of sweat drip down their faces. Students avoid talking about it out of fear that it may show up. They think that if they simply ignore it then it will eventually go away. It does not go away. Instead, it lurks in the shadows of every lesson. It drives their teacher's instruction with one hand and drives the students crazy with the other hand. What is this monstrosity you ask? It is standardized testing. Standardized testing has infiltrated every facet of public education. It drives instruction, assessment, and school wide planning. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2002, suddenly all of a student's academic performance boils down to the state tests. All teachers use some form of testing to either drive their instruction or assess whether students have mastered the content, "but tests, like any other tool, can easily be misused; and misuse, with consequent erroneous action on that basis, may have most unfortunate results" (Pressy & Pressy 1922). We live in a test taking culture where tests are the ultimate assessment of ones abilities.

J. Black in Testing: Friend or Foe? (1998) said it best when he wrote, "learning is a complex process which cannot be reduced to a routine of selection of small components.” Since the learning process is so complex, why are we marginalizing it by forcing these tests upon our students? Some principals look upon their students as cash cows with the potential to bring in funds for the school. Because test scores bring money into the school, our schools are turned into mini-corporations where the Principal is the CEO. Test scores are used as an indicator of whether the "company" is succeeding or failing. If the "company" is failing then eventually it will go bankrupt but if it is succeeding then money will come rolling in. Is it any wonder that Principals put pressure on their teachers to "teach to the test”? This pressure trickles down to the students who seem to think that the only things that counts in school are the standardized tests. Once those tests are over, school is "pointless." It is this high stakes testing that so many decisions depend upon. Will a school be taken off of the SURR list? Will a student have to attend summer school? Will a student be promoted? Will a teacher be fired? Will a Principal be fired? What message are we sending kids by putting such high stakes on standardized testing? So much value is placed on tests results that students are left feeling inferior if they receive a low score.

Test scores create a sort of academic caste system that categorizes students according to their performance. One of my students, Gordon, a bright young man with a sharp sense of humor, scored a low 3 on last year's ELA exam. This year he scored a high 2. "I guess I am getting dumber" he said with a look of defeat on his face. Where is Gordon supposed to find the motivation to raise his ELA test scores next year? How will this sense of defeat affect his other work? The emotional impact on students can no longer be ignored. As a teacher, I too feel the stress of the situation. What am I supposed to say to comfort Gordon? I tried everything to prepare him for the test. It was very upsetting to discover that one of my students actually performed worse on the test since I have been teaching him. Unfortunately, high stakes testing does not account for students, like Gordon, who could have experienced test anxiety. So many factors can impact a student's performance on the test day as Pressy & Pressy (1922) explains, "one finds a child who becomes nervous in taking a test in which speed is an important factor, and so [the child] fails to do as well as he should."

As educators, we want our students to be able to perform to the highest level of Blooms Taxonomy but we are mainly teaching students how to answer multiple choice questions. Students will find great difficulty in reaching a higher order of thinking if they only have to learn how to answer questions for a multiple choice test. According to Black (1998) by teaching our students to be master multiple choice test takers, activities that would be more constructive, creative, and holistic, are not tested. Black (1998) goes on to further remark that teaching to the test, leads teachers and students to think of learning as the art of picking the right answer. Multiple choice tests exert great pressure on both students and teachers. Teachers have to continuously drill their students with strategies on how to pick the right answer. Educational buzzwords like, "activating prior knowledge" "differentiation" and "modification" are used daily among teachers but how much of standardized testing is differentiated for our students’ individual needs? How much of standardized testing allows students to draw on their own meaningful experiences? How much of standardized testing is modified for students with high incidence disabilities?

Students who do not speak English as their first language have an equally difficult time taking the tests. Students with English difficulties are sometimes afforded extra time when taking the tests but even this is not enough modification. According to Pressy and & Pressy (1922),
"If the children tested come from foreign homes where English is spoken little or not at all, they should not be expected to come up to the standards reached by children who are more accustomed to English—particularly if the test demands a nice use of
Unfortunately our students who are limited in English proficiency (LEPs) are graded on the same standards as English proficient students.

Despite all of the cons discussed, there are still some firm supporters of standardized testing. Proponents of standardized testing argue that it is one of the most effective means of closing the achievement gap. Many favor the accountability that standardized testing provides. To some, the tests scores show which teachers are effecting change in the classroom and which teachers are not. They feel that most valuable function of standardized test scores is that they provide useful data to teachers and school administrators. This data can be used to aid differentiation and allow teachers to modify their lessons based on score number so that individual student needs are targeted. Test scores allow teachers to see which of their students are struggling and which are excelling. It makes flexible grouping more practical. Additionally, proponents feel that all students irrespective of race, gender, class or culture, are held to the same standards. There are clear standards and expectations which help increase motivation amongst students and staff.

My main concern with standardized testing is the fact that it alone is used as a determination of student's academic success. I believe that "tests are not to take the place of other sources of information regarding a child and his work, but to make that information more complete" (Pressy & Pressy, 1922). Testing should be used for data and differentiation. We should use the results to help us better develop individual student learning profiles. Tests alone should not decide if a student is capable or incapable of performing grade-level work. Standardized testing does not allow students to have a stake in their learning. It ignores the rich diversity of their experiences and their individuality. I cannot be in favor of a system that ignores the individuality academic needs of our students. Standardized testing ignores students' unique cognitive schema in favor of a general, uniform approach. Black said it best, when he wrote, “each learner has to construct their own schemes of understanding and that new knowledge has to be developed within the broad context of each learner's scheme.”

Works Cited
Black, P. J. (1998). Testing: Friend or Foe? The Theory and Practice of Assessment and Testing. London: The Falmer Press.

Pressey, Sidney L. & Pressey, Luella Cole. (1922, 1923). Use and Misuse of Tests. Introduction to the use of standard tests: A brief manual in the use of tests of both ability and achievement in the school subjects. (pp. 60-73). Yonkers-on- Hudson, NY, US: World Book Company. vi, 263 pp. doi: 10.1037/11200-004

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