Standardized testing is a term, that for over the past several decades has become taboo. But, what is the problem? Where is the base of it? Or does it exist at all?
When Did We Institute Standardized Tests Anyway?
As the U.S. gathered recruits in preparation to join the effort of World War I they were shocked to find that one-fourth of the young men reporting in couldn’t read or write. This revelation undoubtedly marked our education system as a matter that threatened national security. Something had to be done; schools, teachers, and administrations would need to be held accountable.
By 1935 the invention of the scoring machine made multiple choice standardized tests the most efficient and affordable method to measure the accountability of our schools. As a result education standards for the entire United States did indeed improve from where it stood, so far as records can indicate.
A Nation At Risk
It would not be until 1983, when the Reagan administration published A Nation at Risk, that America’s education standards would once again become a matter of political crisis. With the boom in technology that would surely launch into another race of intellect (like that one sweated-out in the development of the space program), ‘better than a 5th grade reading level’ would no longer be acceptable.
In fact, the publication stated that “The Department of the Navy…reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions.” (NCEE, 1983)
The administration specifically observed that as the future of America would call for computerized homes and robotic industries the “average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.” (NCEE 1983)
A Search for a Solution
President George H.W. Bush was the first to step up to the plate with his systemic reform effort entitled America 2000. This proposal included optional testing, called for the citizens to collaborate and invent an entirely new school, and declared a cry for continued education as he stated, “‘A Nation At Risk’ must become a ‘Nation of Students’.” (Bush 1991) All of this, politely declined by the American public.
Then continued the chain of educational efforts with each following term, “President Clinton introduced GOALS 2000, President G.W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law in 2002, and President Obama implemented Race to the Top (RTT).” (Maranto 2015) The results of all these efforts boiled down to the perspective of the White House: an emphasis on testing for the sake of accountability and continued reform to close the educational gap.
Was This All Just A Manufactured Concern?
But what if none of this was really fighting for anything but a skewed political power move of the 80’s? Without the ready information we have available today with Google, how much of A Nation at Risk was valid, and how much was a political hype? Over the years this report has actually been challenged by several scholars.
For example, in the report it lists that the “(SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.” they went on to add to that number that the average amount of students succeeding had also “dramatically declined.”
The True Facts
But, a study conducted by the 1990 Secretary of Energy, James Watkins, entitled the Sandia Report found that from 1970 to 1990 subgroup test results were proven steady if not increasing, instead there was a progressive addition of new subgroups that were influencing the overall statistics, “The change of score found that The overall average SAT scores were decreasing because more impoverished and ethnic-minority students were taking the SAT than ever before.” (Huddleston 2015)
So, What’s Wrong with Standardized Testing?
Politics aside, if standardized testing keeps our school in line with educational standards, then why is there such a point of contention when it comes to the subject of it? What are the real issues at play here? Don’t we want our schools held accountable and our teachers held responsible for our child’s education and then success?
It’s Not Personal
The goal of a standardized test is to close the gap between different socio-economic groups of children, so how this is most effectively measured from the Hill would be viewed as all children across the nation scoring uniformly proficient on an equal summative assessment.
Results of the assessments can be an easily measurable piece of data on a sheet of paper. It’s an admiral goal, in fact, a quality education experience is not only a basic right but essential to our country’s future, no matter if a school is an elite private institution, or a low socioeconomic community center.
Unfortunately, the result of a desire for black and white, on paper conformity in education, becomes an enforced conformity of learning.
The Age Issue
Each student must achieve on tests, equally. Children who are cognitively delayed must stress themselves to score alongside the the more average learners, and the advanced learners must either leave the confines of their developmental age group and be exposed to a maturity level beyond their own or stunt their opportunities for growth as instruction is more strictly in line with prepping for the exam.
The Race Issue
There is even issue in the matter of the culture of the questions. As observed by Schifter and Carey of Temple University they found that the very questions on the reading assessments were culturally biased in nature, asking students from urban and multi-cultural backgrounds to make inferences, predictions, and understand motives of primarily white middle class scenarios.
The Cognitive Issue
Which brings us to subject matter, most summative assessments focus primarily on math and reading, with the occasional Biology exam tossed in at high school. Which means there is once again an unfair advantage that those children that excel in other skills are not being measured to their actual strengths, while those that find an ease with math or reading have, in essence, an unfair advantage.
“High Stake” Problems
The issue with standardized tests though are not the tests themselves, but the fact that they are considered, “high stakes”, meaning the scores of children are used to make major political, and monetary decisions. It’s not so much the student’s accountability that is being tested as much as it is the teachers’.
When James Kyrilo opted his son out for standardized testing due to the reasoning that it was not based off of meaningful learning practices, the school pushed back. “I was told that if my son didn’t participate in testing, this would be a mark against the school’s accountability scores,” which could affect its funding.” (Kyrilo 2018)
Teaching to the Test
All of this pressure leads to the epidemic that is called “TttT” or Teaching to the Test. From state-to-state and school-to-school this problem can look very different. For instance, in place of critical thinking, teachers could be focusing on guessing strategies. Instead of advanced concepts in the curriculum a teacher may be strictly teaching to the general concepts of the exam.
TttT sets restraints on a teacher’s natural ability to really use their personal skills and gifts in the classroom, and in the end undermines the validity of the assessment results. For this reason, “Finland, ranked as one of the top developed countries for education, does not use standardized tests to drive academic performance in their schools, as educational policy makers believe these assessments narrow the curriculum and lead to harmful competition.” (Polleck 2017)
In Rubel’s case study of two urban high schools in the same district she found that when one’s scores dipped in a manner that demanded improvement from the administration, they were forcing students to retake remedial algebra until they could pass the mandatory Algebra exam. For this study 67% of the student population were taking or retaking Algebra in one given school year. As a result, ” 72% of Harwood’s students…passed the state’s algebra exam, many of these students (and of course, the 28% of the class who did not pass the algebra exam) were not given the opportunity to study geometry or any other mathematics as part of their high school education.” (Rubel 2011) Meanwhile the other school at first allowed the students to progress, while requiring before or after school programs to prepare to retake the exam.
Anxiety is perhaps the number one concern for parents who oppose standardized testing. Is the stress of multiple high-stakes exams for children worth it?
Singapore is highly acclaimed for its school systems, in fact they stand rated number one in the world. Their pupils come out speaking multiple languages and their exit examine covers far more concepts than the basics of reading and arithmetic. But the stress level and expectations of the student is high. The results of such can be severe stress, social blocks, and even in extreme cases, suicide. 27 Singapore students committed suicide in 2016 alone, starting as young as 11. Their exam does not account for teacher or school success, they instead measure only their own future.
So imagine the implications of placing an exam on a student that determines not only their own success but that of their entire administration?
Solutions:: Open to Suggestions
So how do we solve these problems, or can we? In most recent years it seems the drive to push back on testing has subsided with the extreme reactionaries to the most recent administration.
Given this lack of empirical support as well as historical concerns regarding
the potentially damaging effects of high-stakes accountability programs, Mathis
(2010) has recommended that the Common Core Standards should be measured
using low-stakes assessments until they have been “subjected to extensive validation, trials, and subsequent revisions before implementation” (DiPerna 2015)
Some parents are choosing to use the power of opting out of the test for their student. While this may alleviate the stress of the student, and over time influence policy changes, in the meantime our children’s curriculum is still being dictated by limited criteria.
In the Age of Big Data
Let’s look at it this way. Disney World can track all individual park goers by utilizing one simple bracelet to acquire data on a massive scale to control security, analyze wait times, check for store conversion rates, and conduct overall park assessments for success. How is it then, that our assessment styles are still a century-old testing method of color bubbles onto paper? Augmented reality, Gamification, online student data measurement tools such as the popular iReady are already educational possibilities.
The SAVE science project has used said technologies to prove that standardized tests can become about the experiential learning experience and measure how the student applies their knowledge as opposed to how well they catalog general facts and accurately guess the best out of four.
Common Core Standards and their Impact on Standardized Test Design: A New York Case Study. High School Journal. 2017;101(1):1-26. doi:10.1353/hsj.2017.0013.
DiPerna P, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 2015 Schooling in America Survey: Perspectives on School Choice, Common Core, and Standardized Testing. Polling Paper No. 24. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice; 2015.
Maranto JH. The Effect of Standardized Testing on Historical Literacy and Educational Reform in the U.S. Academic Leadership Journal in Student Research. 2015;3.
National Committee on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform—A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education. Washington, DC: Author, 1983. Print.
Pushback on Standardized Testing Loses Momentum: ESSA, competing priorities put damper on movement. Education Week. 2018;38(1):22-23.
Rubel, L. H. (2011). High-Stakes Standardized Mathematics Testing in Urban High Schools: An Equity Perspective. North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, 33.
Schifter, C. C., & Carey, M. (2014). Addressing Standardized Testing through a Novel Assesment Model. International Association for Development of the Information Society, 11.
Scogin SC, Kruger CJ, Jekkals RE, Steinfeldt C. Learning by Experience in a Standardized Testing Culture: Investigation of a Middle School Experiential Learning Program. Journal of Experiential Education. 2017;40(1):39-57
Stotsky S. Testing Limits. Academic Questions. 2016;29(3):285-298. doi:10.1007/s12129-016-9578-4.