Problems with Standardized Testing

I leave it to the educators in the public sector to assess whether or not standardized testing can be eliminated, but there are problems, and this piece by Sara Briggs gets at the heart of them.

What do you think of our standardized testing? Any suggestions to go forward?

1. Misused And Punitive Data…

Schools and districts across the United States have been caught cheating— changing test answers or giving their students test problems ahead of time— including Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Texas. A March, 2011 USA Today investigation showed that the dramatic rise in D.C. test scores was due to cheating, not to effective administration. There have also been instances in which tests were scored incorrectly, failing and sending students who had actually passed the tests to summer school…

If the tests we use to measure student learning are themselves invalid, then the inferences we draw and the direction we derive from them are inherently misleading.

2. Knowledge Is Dead…

But don’t count on students to stand out if they are constantly being trained to fit in.

3. You Are What You Score

When students are already wired, as humans, to compare themselves to others, it only exacerbates the situation when their basis for comparison is designed to put some of them at a disadvantage. Standardization may enable consistent measurement, but it creates a nasty byproduct in the process: a consistently distorted self-image.

Students who ace tests internalize their performance as self-worth, and students who fail tests (and see others succeeding) internalize their performance as self-worthlessness. This trend can last throughout an entire educational career—or lack thereof.

4. Ignoring The Individual

This is perhaps the least remediable aspect of the tests, and for that reason the most harmful. While not all standardized tests use multiple choice questions—many are actually performance or project based—they are designed to judge all students using the same set of criteria.

And while this is completely necessary for efficient grading, it does not take into account individual variances in learning style or background, and teaches students to follow guidelines more than it teaches them to think outside the box.

5. What Not Tested Is Not Taught

Educator Alfie Kohn advises parents to ask an unusual question when a school’s test scores increase: “What did you have to sacrifice about my child’s education to raise those scores?”

As schools struggle to avoid the “underperforming” label, entire subject areas—such as music, art, social studies, and foreign languages—are de-emphasized. What is not tested does not count, and 85 percent of teachers believe that their school gives less attention to subjects that are not on the state test.

One teacher had this to say about how the timing of state tests drives teaching: “At our school, third- and fourth-grade teachers are told not to teach social studies and science until March.” As “real learning” takes a backseat to “test learning,” challenging curriculum is replaced by multiple choice materials, individualized student learning projects disappear, and in-depth exploration of subjects along with extracurricular activities are squeezed out of the curriculum.

6. Students As Guinea Pigs

“What we have is a lot of interesting ideas about better ways of holding schools accountable and very little hard research,” says Koretz. “And I would say that that’s really an ethical problem, not just a political problem.  It’s a political problem because we lack information that we could use to better serve children.  It’s an ethical problem because children are not consenting adults.  When we drop into schools these very high powered policies that clearly change teacher’s behavior in dramatic ways, we have an obligation, in my view, to monitor what happens.”

To get hired at Google, Microsoft, BBC News, Peking University, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, St. Mary’s Hospital, the International Grocer’s Association, even the local burger joint—or to invent a new job in ten years— students need to spend more time using their skills than measuring them.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Phyllis Palmer

    not to mention the whole TESTING INDUSTRY

  • Adam

    The ACT, SAT, GRE, PE exam, MCAT, LSAT, and on are all standardized tests. Why isn’t anyone complaining about those?

    1. So is the cheating due to unreasonable expectations or because cheating is easier than growing? I don’t see how cheating has anything to do with testing.

    2. You’re unique just like everyone else. Students can only standout when other students are pushed down. Do we want equality or do we want superstars who excel over everyone else? I think we should be consistent here.

    3. How we deal with shame has nothing to do with testing. The point is not to make everyone strong. The point is that it’s NOT shameful to be weak.

    4. Testing is not teaching. Regardless of their learning style any student in high school can pass a test of 1+1, or 2+3. That’s because it’s something they know very well and have actually learned it. Instead of criticizing the test how about we look at the teaching.

    5. If students need to know something that isn’t being tested for, we could change the test. I was never taught how to milk a cow and I was never tested on how to milk a cow and so far have never needed to milk a cow. We don’t need to know everything. If there’s something important missing why not fix that small oversight instead of saying the whole system is bad?

    6. You can’t get hard research with out using students as guinea pigs. I guess this about using someone else’s kids as the guinea pigs instead of my own. Also, you can’t measure a skill without using the skill so the argument here is non-sense.

  • Barb

    I have always held that standardized tests were bad. Bad for teachers, bad for students, bad for schools. In this state we had the WASL–my daughter was unfortunate enough to be in on the ground floor. She was tested in 2, 4, 7 grade and never met the standards–she had a reading disability. These failures gave her tremendous fear of the test. We got her tutoring, etc. etc.–Her class was required to pass it in 10th grade to get a HS diploma. I coached and coached on how to take it. This test was not timed–but the students acted as if it was. I told her to be the last one in the room if necessary. She passed all parts. Her SAT scores were dismal (She had a good GPA). The college she chose decided to not require SAT scores starting with her year. She was accepted based on grades and an interview. She graduated cum Laude four years later.
    in my career I lead a technical training group on a military base. Workers had to pass many tests to be certified in tasks. One time for fun–I took one of the tests and almost passed it WITHOUT really knowing anything. Tests are extremely hard to write and in my opinion, a very poor indicator of what someone knows or how they will learn or perform in the future,

  • http://www.lambpower.com/ Steve Dawson

    Students have complained about the SATs and ACTs. I work for a public school district in a non-teaching capacity. I asked the HS Director of Guidance what the SAT was a predictor of. She told me success in the first year of college…that’s it.

    Adam, school districts are judged by their test scores. Get low test scores , the district/school gets tagged as under performing. Get tagged as under performing and the district can lose state/federal funding. There is a lot of pressure on districts to keep improving scores.

    The one thing that tests don’t do is measure creativity. The truth is that the most successful people in the world don’t necessarily have a lot of rote knowledge at their finger tips. They do know how apply knowledge in unique and creative ways. Most tests test th ability of the test taker to retain and regurgitate information. For the most part what is being tested is not true problem solving, but information retention. Creativity and problem solving are higher functions that our society needs to survive.

  • Josh T.

    I ran into my old 12th grade U.S. Government teacher recently and talked briefly about the SOL tests in Virginia. He said he’s lucky–there is no Government SOL test (which is great–he was a great teacher and made things very interesting and fun to learn). I asked him if any teachers at the high school actually thought the SOLs are a good idea, and he said NO without reservation. I complained about my 3rd grader being required to memorize a bunch of facts about several European explorers and recall them all for the test (and she was having trouble). He said it would be better for them to focus less on the raw facts that they won’t remember and more on the bigger story and reasons behind those facts. Of course, “facts” are much easier to test.


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