Examining the Motives Behind Standardized Tests

By Topper, Dianna | Social Education, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Examining the Motives Behind Standardized Tests


Topper, Dianna, Social Education


What is it that we are assessing when we give a standardized test to our students? What is such assessment for? I find myself pondering these questions more and more, as a parent and teacher. Unfortunately, the conclusion I'm reaching is that instead of promoting better schools, we may be sabotaging them.

Before dismissing my ideas as sour grapes from a frustrated teacher, let me share three stories with you.

* When I returned to college, intent on securing a teaching certificate, it had been many years since I had taken a standardized test. Even so, I wasn't too worried about passing the Michigan Teacher Competency Exam. My educational background (BA in history), though somewhat ancient, was solid enough. On the exam, a multiple choice question asked for "the cause" of the Civil War. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I could have made a credible argument, consisting of several pages, for each of the proffered answers. I found myself thinking not about the "correct" answer, or the question, or the war, but about which answer the test writers thought was "correct." My knowledge of history became meaningless.

* My son, a bright, likable young man, had always scored well on standardized tests. Then, in middle school, his scores slipped, putting him closer to average in a few areas. He joked about getting dumber as he got older, but the distress under the thin joke was real. During these years, he witnessed his father's lingering illness and death. Shortly thereafter, my son was ill, hospitalized, and had surgery. Unfortunately, published scores don't reveal that sort of background information. Even seasoned professionals have trouble understanding the vagaries of test scores, yet we are holding students and entire school districts hostage to these numbers.

* I was fortunate to teach an energetic, interested class of ninth graders in an enriched section of American History. Although most of these kids were extremely good students, they labored long and hard on their writing, working on the intricacies of essay tests. The work seemed to pay off when the students created responses showing thought and judgment, sometimes beyond their years. Imagine my surprise when I gave an objective test and a majority of the students failed it. Through journal entries and discussions, it gradually became clear that students had over-analyzed the test. Far too often, I find students who can talk to me knowledgeably about course material, who then "lock-up" on a test. What they know becomes useless to them.

Educators, students, politicians, and most importantly, parents want to know how schools and students "measure up." Scores get posted in the newspapers, and success or failure is measured by those published numbers. I can hear some people asking, "What's wrong with that? Isn't that what school and life are all about? Competition! Winning!" Certainly that's the prevailing "wisdom," but competition also shows up the losers, and if the "losers" are young children, they learn to give up on themselves.

If assessment is about fostering excellence in students, teachers, and schools, then we should be evaluating what methods and materials seem the most successful and why.

There are a number of changes that might bring us closer to meaningful and useful standardized testing.

* First, testing and test preparation should be done sparingly. As a result of the current enthusiasm for testing, ever more time is taken away from classroom instruction. Since subject content is ostensibly what students are being tested on, this is an obvious contradiction. There should be a limit on instructional time lost to assessment.

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