Saturday, November 5, 2011

Standardized Testing

I think there are a handful of issues related to public education such as funding, unions, merit based pay, and standardized testing. Many of these issues are hot topics and are being debated from the teacher’s lounge to the halls of Washington DC. For me, the issue I see having the greatest impact on my students and my classroom is the over emphasis on standardized testing. I am a believer in student driven and individualized learning for all students. Standardized testing flies in the face of this belief or at least appears to do so as it is currently being used.

For me, I see the reason we have standardized testing is more about holding teachers accountable rather than measuring student learning. We want to be able to say that all our teachers are teaching the same content and we are all on the same page either as a school district or a state. The reason it is being used in such a way is that it is easy to use simple test questions and pull data to evaluate and make decisions from. We use these to make decisions on teacher effectiveness and student learning because they are easily scored and measured.

The problem with such an approach to teacher evaluation and student measurement is that it is not the whole picture but often is treated as such. Standardized tests largely require low level thinking skills and ask students to simply recall and regurgitate facts and procedural items. They do not reflect a student’s ability to creatively solve problems, work collaboratively with peers, or use creative problem solving. If we think in terms of life skills and 21st Century Skills, standardize tests are not able to adequately assessing these skills. With that in mind, educators know the value of such skills and yet they are not being considered when a student is evaluated in terms of a standardized test score.

The effects of such overdependence on standardized tests score often have significant consequences in a number of areas of education. For one, curriculum is often driven by these tests. The order of units and chapters are put in place to align with these tests rather than a logical sequence based on best practice or what is best for the cognitive development of students. Scope and sequence for tested curricular areas are being decided by testing schedules rather than by what is best for student’s learning. 

Another effect is the potential implications for teachers whose students underperform on such tests. In some cases teachers are being held accountable for low tests scores or unjustly receiving accolades for high scores. Often these scores are the results of student affluence rather than teaching ability or inability and yet teachers are being held accountable for them. In addition to teachers, whole schools and districts are being blamed for poor test scores. Schools are being put on watch lists and in some cases being reconstituted or closed based on these scores.

In my opinion, the most profound impact is being felt by the students themselves. For many, this is the key indicator or their success or failure within the academic realm. They are sorted, ranked, and placed in classes solely based on a standardized test score. Intelligent students who test poorly are unjustly hurt by these tests as well as students who struggle within the confines of the format of such tests. Too often a student’s academic value is being decided by a one size fits all test. Students are individuals that learn, grow, and demonstrate their learning in unique and different ways. Standardized tests do not allow for this to happen.

In terms of a solution, there are a few things that can be done to help this issue. First, the test themselves are actually not bad if used in a specific way. If they are used simply to determine a student’s ability to recall facts, dates, and definitions, then they are adequate. However, they should not be the sum of all a student’s academic parts. In addition, they cannot be the focus of weeks and months of preparation nor should budget line items be in place for “test prep”. Too much learning time is being wasted in an effort to teach to the test. In addition, they should not be the sole tool used to measure a student which they often are. Yes, it would be nice to not have any tests and trust students and teachers to be constantly learning and making progress. However, that is idealistic and not practical in all cases. Therefore, we need to make sure in addition to tests of rote memorization if required, that we have performance assessments, observational data, critical thinking tasks, and other tools aimed at evaluating the whole student. Students are unique individuals and our assessment of them, when necessary, should reflect that.
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