What Standardized Tests Do and Don’t Tell You
Part I: Understanding Standardized Tests from the Inside
This is the first article in a four-part series that will explore what standardized tests reveal about students, teachers, and schools. These articles will provide an insider’s view (from a teacher and researcher) about what is really going on with standardized tests and what they really reveal.
A Brief History to Provide Context – It’s Important
While standardized testing has increased in visibility to the general public over the past several years, it is not exactly new to American education. In fact, standardized testing can be traced all the way back to the mid-1800s where educators sought to assess student learning in writing (for a great timeline of standardized testing, see http://www.nea.org/home/66139.htm). However, the roots of using standardized tests to assess school and teacher effectiveness while also providing some a means to compare students with one another can be traced back to 1958. It was then that in the panic and paranoia of the Sputnik launch, American lawmakers placed a large bit of blame on the public school system for Russia beating the US into space. As a result, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was passed, which dramatically increased federal funding of schools while giving the federal government more leverage over them. The money from NDEA was used by states to begin standardized testing programs designed to measure school effectiveness and to purportedly help make American kids get smarter so we could be Russia in the space race.
While the movement continued to grow, the next watershed moment for standardized testing came in 1983, when the A Nation at Risk Report was released, which compared the state of the public education system to an act of war, and called on national standards and increased standardized test scores. Again, government funding increased along with its control over schools.
It was not until 2002 that standardized tests were required nationally, and tied to accountability, funding, and achievement. Though states have taken different, though often similar paths, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2002 lifted standardized testing to the highest standing in measuring how smart kids are, how good teachers are, how good principals are, and how good schools are.
What Are Standardized Tests Supposed to Measure?
Though there is some variability across states, most students are tested at various grade levels on reading, writing, and math, with some testing other subject areas. These test are generally designed to test basic skills that align with state and/or national standards to see if kids are meeting those standards. It assumes that all students should be at the same place at the same time in their learning and development. I’ll talk more about that in a later post.
The tests are limited in what they can assess since they are mostly true/false or multiple-choice exams, save many state writing tests. They can assess students’ ability to identify, define, repeat, locate, classify, or infer information. While important, these skills are widely considered by educators to be low-level and the least complex forms of knowledge (for more, see the web page on Bloom’s taxonomy at https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/). Almost all of theses assessments do not assess students ability to understand, apply, analyze, or evaluate information, nor can they assess students’ ability to produce new or original works based off of information learned in the classroom. These skills are widely considered by educators to be high-level and the most complex forms of knowledge.
These tests are qualitative measures, which seek to produce a score based on performance. Those numbers then are used to compare students-to-students, how well a teacher is teaching, how well an administrator is doing, and how well a school and/or district is doing. In short, the numbers produced from tests, which assess the lowest levels of knowledge, are utilized to judge schools, teachers, administrators, and kids. In fact, schools are closed, people lose their jobs, and communities and students lose their schools over the numbers produced on these exams that measure the least complex forms of knowledge, which was all made possible by NCLB in 2002.
Other Forms of Assessment
In the classroom, teachers use and are encouraged to use multiple forms of assessment, which include but are not limited to essays, poems, journal entries, songs, newspaper articles, timelines, brochures, collages, advertisements, podcasts, videos, editorials, comics, PowerPoint presentations, and much more. These are known as authentic assessments, which ask students to utilize those higher-order thinking skills based off of knowledge learned in class; they align with 21st century skills that have become so popular and are critically important.
In education, based on research and the most widely accepted theories on learning and assessment, teachers are encouraged to utilize authentic assessment to challenge students because they can measure complexity in thinking and understanding. They also align with two of the most popular theories in education – Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and Elliot Eisner’s multiple forms of representation theory. The former espouses that there are many forms of intelligence, including linguistic intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, among others. In other words, some people are word smart and use words effectively, like a writer, while some are stronger in using their bodies effectively, like a surgeon. We are not limited to one kind of intelligence, but some we are stronger in than others.
The latter champions the idea that there are many ways for us to show what we know, and we may not be good at all of them. This should sing to all of you test anxiety sufferers out there who could have aced a test allowing you to write an essay on what you knew, but on the multiple choice exam, you clammed up.
Standardized tests do not attend to either of those theories and limit the assessment of intelligence and successful teachers, administrators, and schools to a number derived for questions only able to assess low-levels of knowledge. Despite this reality, those numbers have become the end all, be all for judging those entities and they have wreaked havoc on the education system and local communities in the process. We regularly use these numbers to determine what is or is not a good school or who is or is not a good teacher. In the coming blog posts, we will get into much more detail on what these test do and do not reveal about our students, teachers, and schools so you can be better informed of the strengths and weaknesses of the ultimate measure of contemporary educational success.