The Conundrum of Large Scale Standardized Testing: Making Sure Every Student Counts

By Harkins, Mary Jane; Singer, Sonya | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Conundrum of Large Scale Standardized Testing: Making Sure Every Student Counts


Harkins, Mary Jane, Singer, Sonya, Journal of Thought


Introduction

I remember well the day the examinations arrived from the Department of Education. I was teaching a class when our secretary piped into my room to tell me that 'my' exams had arrived. At lunch time, I wandered down to the main office to pick up my delivery. There, taking up an inordinate amount of space behind our secretary's desk, were three, fifty-pound boxes filled with English 12 and English Communications 12 provincial exams. Lacking superhuman strength, I knew that I would be unable to carry these monstrosities of boxes, so I commandeered a pilfered shopping cart from the janitors' supply closet and wheeled the weighty new arrivals down the hall to my classroom.

The following morning, I wheeled the shopping cart to the school's gymnasium where the examinations were to be administered. Along with the four hundred and eighty examination booklets and a hundred and sixty individualized marking sheets, the shopping cart also held fifty-five scavenged dictionaries which, I had discovered the day before, students were expected to use for all sections of the examinations. The students filed in at 8:00 a.m., and we were underway.

The inveterate dispute between proponents and foes of large scale, standardized testing has been churning since the first homogeneous tests were developed in Europe in the late 1800s. Two hundred years later, the debate still rages in educational circles. This article examines some of the current thinking surrounding the use and implications of standardized assessments, particularly as they pertain to students with exceptionalities. The article interweaves one teacher's recollections of her first experience with provincial examinations and leads to a broader discussion of critical issues embedded in the construction, administration and scoring of large scale assessments. We hope to generate discussion and raise important questions that contribute to the awareness that every student counts.

There are few issues in education that generate such fractious debate as do matters of assessment; in particular, large scale, standardized assessments. The issues surrounding assessment, particularly standardized tests and the use of such tests, have created a contentious dichotomy. On the one hand there are those who extol the merits of standardized assessments as a cost-efficient, reliable and valid means of determining how well students have succeeded in meeting intended learning outcomes in a particular subject area. Conversely, there are those who argue that the skills, abilities, knowledge and intelligence of individual students cannot be adequately reflected and/or quantified by a one-shot, single test score.

It was our desire to more fully understand the purposes and praxis of standardized testing that led us to begin a critical inquiry into the adoption and implementation of external assessments in one local high school. Although we come from diverse backgrounds, one from English language arts and one from inclusive education, we shared a common interest in how educators can best meet the needs of all students. The critical issue for us was how educational systems can support, assess, and respond to the learning needs of all students in meaningful ways.

A Common Vernacular

We began our inquiry by exploring the "language" of standardized testing as defined by practitioners in the field of educational assessment. Standardization of testing refers to the "structuring [of] test materials, administration procedures, scoring methods, and procedures for interpreting results ... this helps to ensure accuracy and consistency in measuring progress, determining levels of performance, and comparing performance to others" (Venn, 2004, p. 109). Standardized tests generally include at least some multiple-choice and true-false questions. These can be graded by computer, or by individuals who do not need to understand the material in depth, as long as they have a list of the correct answers. …

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