This is the second 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.
Are Standardized Tests all Bad?
It would be natural to ask, “If educators say standardized tests are so bad, why do we use them?” Well, there are some positives. First, the tests can give us some insight into students’ reading, writing, and mathematical ability, though as I wrote in my last blog post, that information is limited. The data derived from them can be utilized to address individual needs and in conjunction with multiple other assessments, can provide a piece to a larger picture on student learning. Along with offering insight, standardized tests have been found to improve memory retention while making students aware of where they may have deficiencies (Benjamin & Pashler, 2015). The latter can be empowering for students in helping them take control of their own learning while the former can be useful in multiple areas of life and future schooling. Finally, standardized tests can reveal how well students have learned and/or how well teachers have taught the specific items that are on the test. Generally, these tests are studied rigorously to ensure that the measures are both valid (Do they tell us what we want them to tell us?) and reliable (Do they tell us this information consistently?). So standardized tests do serve some purpose in education and could be useful tools for educators, but unfortunately, they have morphed into the primary means by which we assess students, teachers, administrators, and schools. In the remainder of this article, we will look at three areas standardized tests have not had such a positive impact.
The Impact Felt in the Classroom
While there clearly is some value to standardized testing, they have many negatives effects in the everyday classroom. Research demonstrates that standardized testing and the accompanying standardized curriculum (what we teach in schools) created by national and state standards are serving to both inhibit the student experience while narrowing what they are learning (Au, 2011). This has immediate impact on what students learn because when teachers plan years or units of study, they are taught to plan backwards, beginning by determining what students need to know before creating an assessment that will evaluate whether they have learned. From there, teachers create daily lessons designed to teach students what they need to know in order to be successful on that assessment. In the case of standardized testing, researchers contends that those end of grade assessments (standardized tests) have narrowed the curriculum, as teachers are now backward planning to help students to succeed on standardized tests while squeezing out important material that is not found on the tests (Au, 2011). In education, we call that “teaching to the test.” Interestingly, teacher curriculum planning is now being replaced by so-called scripted curriculum, where teachers’ daily plans are written by corporate entities for them to enact in their classrooms (Au, 2011). We’ll unpack that in our next blog post that focuses on the effects on teachers.
A second impact of standardized testing is that it negatively is impacting student experience, arguably the most important element of a good education. Teachers are forced to focus on test preparation, which is causing boredom for students and leaving many disengaged, without a sense of why what they are doing is valuable. According to a study by the Council of the Great City Schools, students spend 20-25 hours taking standardized tests each year with students taking an astounding 113 standardized tests in their academic career on average (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/08/opt-out-standardized-testing-overload/). In a recent meeting I attended with teachers, principals, and district administrators from Central Ohio, they reported losing up to 30 days of instructional time either administering or preparing for tests.
So instead of fostering creativity, teaching critical thinking, or even developing better writers, teachers do things like teaching how to approach a multiple choice test or to stay in the lines on a standardized written response (not doing so causes scores to drop in some states). Adding to the boredom is the fact the way teachers teach changes because of testing, leading them avoid best practices in order to be more teacher-centered, more “skill and drill” oriented, and teaching directly to the test (Popham, 2001). What is remarkable about all of this is that studies reveal that standardized tests are not predictors of college readiness or improved classroom performance. Universities across the US either have or are discussing eliminating use of ACT/SAT as a requirement for college entrance.
The Impact on the Child
Along with impacts on the classroom, there are many negative impacts on the children (not the student, the child). Studies indicate that kids’ self-esteem is suffering because of standardized testing (http://edge.ascd.org/blogpost/15-reasons-why-standardized-tests-are-problematic). Even those who are successful feel the pressure to stay on top and are frequently having that feeling reinforced by parents (http://edge.ascd.org/blogpost/15-reasons-why-standardized-tests-are-problematic). Sleeplessness and long-term mental blocks are also being reported as a result of these assessments (https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2015/11/16/standardized-tests-making-our-students-and-teachers-sick).
Along with that, these tests are causing kids so much anxiety, they are getting sick (see US News article). I will never forget the day I proctored a standardized test in Colorado where a student got ill, threw up all over her test, and we took the extreme measure of not only cleaning the vomit off of the test, but we preserved the test in a plastic bag in order to administer it a few days later when the child was better out of fear that not having the test completed would hurt our overall school rating (tests not completed counted against the school’s overall score). Ironically, this anxiety is shown to affects students’ performance on the tests (http://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3361&context=dissertations). The psychological and emotional impacts are very real. I see it with my own 10-year-old anytime she is about to take a standardized test. It is unhealthy.
The Impact on Parents
The effects of these tests aren’t limited to the students, as they carryover to their parents. As many of you parent readers can likely attest, these tests can cause fear and panic in us if our kiddos’ scores aren’t where they need to be. Even as an educator and researcher in education, I get the impulse to worry when I see a lower score before I remind myself of why I shouldn’t be so concerned. Along with that, these tests are causing both students and parents to compare scores to that of others, a practice that psychologists have found leads to depression and general feelings of inadequacy. We have forgotten in this testing craze that kids develop different capacities at different times in different ways; the tests don’t account for that. The word standardize means “to make things the same,” which in the case of testing means to that each kid should know the same thing at the same time and demonstrate it in the same way. This concept not only doesn't seem to fit a world filled with individual difference in growth, development, and understanding, but it flies in the face of basic logic.
So What Do We Do?
Well, that depends. Many parents across the country have joined the “Opt-Out” movement where they are refusing to allow their children to take the test (see http://www.fairtest.org/get-involved/opting-out). This is a difficult decision because as I mentioned above, opting out in most cases hurts the school’s rating (which as we wrote in a previously blog posts, really doesn’t mean much). Several state legislatures are discussing and/or passing legislation aimed at lowering the amount of standardized testing. While that is a start, I think it is clear that the problem is not lowering the amount, but rather drastically changing how we use them. Emailing, calling, or visiting your state level Congressperson is a powerful way to move the needle on this issue. You can also attend board meetings in your local district and articulate to them how you feel about standardized tests and what you think they should do. In a smaller way you can share stories you read on the topic on social media or talk to other parents in your neighborhood. It’s well known in education circles that the pendulum swings back and forth on different trends in the field. In my opinion, testing is one of those trends and from where I am sitting, the pendulum is beginning to swing again.
Au, W. (2011). Teacher under the new Tyalorism: High-stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum. Journal of Curriclum STUDIES, 43(1), 25-45.
Benjamin, A. & Pashler, H. (2015). The value of standardized testing: A perspective from cognitive psychology. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(1). 13-23.
Popham, W. J. (2001). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership. 58(6), 16-20.