Time for a New Standard
Standardized achievement tests are wolves in sheep’s clothing that are detrimental to the health of the education system. Many parents, students, and taxpayers falsely believe that standardized testing is just a short chunk of time, usually a week or several days, where students take a state-mandated test and then go back to normal curriculum. While the actual pencil-to-paper testing may only take a week, the test itself affects a student’s learning throughout the entire school year. From narrowing curriculum to devoting a great deal of classroom time to test preparation, teachers feel forced to devalue education to allow their class to achieve high test scores. Not only that, but the flaws in the tests themselves are staggering and continue to put countless children at a disadvantage every year. Scores are used to make immense decisions and one score can be used to decide whether a child is knowledgeable enough to move to the next grade or get into college. Achievement and intelligence are very complex concepts and presently they are being reduced to a score or percentile. This implies that the knowledge of a student is only as important as the score they achieve on a standardized test. In this way, standardized tests devalue the American education system.
Standardized tests, according to James W. Popham’s “Using Standards and Assessments,” are “any examinations administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner.” The ultimate goal of these achievement tests is to understand the knowledge of any given student in a tested subject and to use this knowledge to make generalizations about schools and/or communities. In addition, the scores are often used to assess schools, track student progress over time, and provide feedback for teachers.
Understanding the way in which standardized tests are created makes it easier to uncover their flaws. First, the companies that create and sell achievement tests are large for-profit corporations. They, as most business people do, want to sell their product as much as possible to make as much money as they can. For that reason, they try to make a test that fits every region, because if they made a test too specific and accommodating then it would only sell to a few school districts. This is problematic because curriculum is substantially different in every region so there are tons of mismatches between what is being taught and what is being put on tests. Second, the way that test developers choose test items creates concern. Developers want testing questions that spread out scores, meaning they do not want 75% of test takers to get a particular question right or 75% of test takers to get a question wrong. They strive to get questions that are answered correctly by around 50% of students. That being said, developers often cut questions that a majority of students would likely get right. Students would likely get these questions right because that is what they were taught in school yet they are cut because that would allow students to perform too well. As James W. Popham in “Using Standards and Assessments” puts it, “the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized test mueasuring such knowledge.” This means if a lot of teachers stress, for example, long division, then it would not likely appear on a test since most students would then be able to answer long division questions correctly. Test developers will do whatever possible to make sure that scores are spread out because that is what is needed to create norm-referenced generalizations. This goal leads more test items to be devoted to outside knowledge. In other words, on every standardized test that are a handful of questions that are based on knowledge that is acquired outside of school. They do this because they know that some students will know the answer from their experiences and others will not and that will create the variance that they seek.
The effects of standardized tests reach far beyond the test itself and moves into the classroom. Standardized tests naturally change the way that many teachers choose to teach. With the burden of a high-stakes test looming, teachers feel pressure to change their methods to better fit the standardized test that their students will be given. One of the ways that traditional education is changing is by narrowing curriculum. Due to standardized tests increased emphasis on reading and math, studies have shown that teachers often exclude or limit topics that are not tested, particularly in elementary school. In the Center of Education Policy’s “Narrowing the Curriculum” study they found that many districts are cutting instructional time in areas like social studies, science, art, music, and physical education. The Center’s nationally representative study found that 27% of districts cut a portion of social studies instruction time to increase reading and math instruction, 22% cut science, 20% cut music, and 18% cut other subjects. On top of this, 71% of districts admitted that students at risk of failing standardized tests had other subjects cut for them particularly to make more time reading and math. For example, students at risk of failing the standardized tests would go to extra small group reading and math instruction while the other students went to music class or gym class. This means spending most time on reading and math while spending the bare minimum time on other valuable subjects. Although some may believe that emphasis on reading and math does not sound so bad, it is simply unfair to deprive students of valuable topics that help make them well-rounded citizens. Subjects like history and science are just as important in helping children discover their passions while obtaining knowledge.
Another way that standardized tests alter traditional teaching is through a process called teaching to the test. According to the Center for Public Education’s “High Stake Testing and Effects on Instruction,” teaching to the test is characterized by a variety of teaching practices but most commonly “narrowing the curriculum by excluding subject matter not tested, excluding topics not likely to appear on the test even within tested subjects, reducing learning to the memorization of facts easily recalled for multiple-choice testing, and devoting too much classroom time to test preparation.” Teaching to the test is not simply ensuring test readiness by covering tested subjects. The practice is a more deliberate attempt to base curriculum and class time on the sole priority of achieving better scores. With increased stakes for students and higher pressures from administrators who crave more school funding, teachers find themselves more and more in the position of teaching to the test. A study by Rand Corporation called “Standard-Based Accountability: Experiences of Teachers and Administrators” analyzed standardized testing in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Results found that an average of 90% of principals in those three states implemented a strategy of “matching curriculum and instruction with assessments” to improve scores. That means that in those three states, and likely across the country, teachers are being instructed by their bosses to teach to the test.
This leads many to question why teachers would willingly devalue education by narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test. Teachers devote their lives to a career that’s goal is to provide children with knowledge, so understandably it is hard to consider that they have a hand in devaluing student’s instruction. In some cases, they simply do not have a choice. As stated above, many teachers are being instructed by the principals of the school at which they teach to alter their teaching to better fit standardized tests. The principals that deliver that message are often instructed to do so by superintendents and so forth up the hierarchy. As much as the passions of some teachers may conflict with the orders that they receive from their superiors, it is still their job to listen to their bosses. If their bosses are saying that higher test scores must be achieved and teaching to the test is the only way to do it, they are more likely to teach to the test in their classroom. Another reason that teachers may willingly devalue education is the high-stakes nature of tests. In the same Rand Corporation study, “Standard-Based Accountability: Experiences of Teachers and Administrators,” results found that an average of 54% of schools in the states of CA, GA, and PA use tests to assess teacher performance and 53% use them to decide student promotion and retention. Teachers want their students to succeed and in an educational system where passing a standardized test equates to success, there are not many options for struggling educators.
As for the tests themselves, they too are flawed. Standardized testing allows administrators to compare students to a general standard. Therefore, in order to make a fair comparison, it is imperative that all test takers receive the same opportunity to achieve a high score. For example, imagine there are two people competing in a 100m race. Lane one has five hurdles but lane two does not have any hurdles. No matter who won or what the times were, it would be unfair to say that one runner is faster than the other based on this race because the races were not equitable. This applies to standardized testing. If some students face hurdles and disadvantages in testing that others do not, it is unjust to compare the two groups of scores. Students should take a test that matches their culture and lifestyle. Robert Green’s “The Impact of Standardized Testing on Minority Students” demonstrates how test inequity has always harmed minority students. Green argues that the method of giving every single student the same standardized test with little to no exceptions is not equitable. A minority student who speaks English as his or her second language is held to the same standard as a white child who has been exposed to only English since birth. A poor student is expected to have the same common knowledge as a wealthy student despite a clear difference in life experiences. James W. Popham’s “Using Standards and Assessments” gives a good example of common knowledge placing low income children at a disadvantage. The sixth grade test item reads “A plant’s fruit always contains seeds. Which of the items below is not a fruit?” The choices are orange, pumpkin, apple, and celery. The test item provides enough information to let the students know that they need to identify which of the choices does not have seeds. If a child has been exposed to all of these foods, then their outside knowledge would lead them to the answer easily. However, if a student for whatever reason, economic or just by chance, had never encountered one or more of the fruits, then they would be unable to answer that question. That is not their fault or their teacher’s fault yet they are being penalized for it.
Green’s article “The Impact of Standardized Testing on Minority Students” mentioned above was written almost thirty years ago but all his points above still apply to standardized tests today and show how little progress has been made in tearing down the hurdles of standardized testing. This slow and almost nonexistent progress is shown in the statistics of scores by race. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics’ “Achievement Gaps,” from 1984 to 2004 the gap between white and black standardized test scores only decreased four points in math and three points in reading. For Hispanic Americans, from 1984 to 2004 the gap between white and Hispanic scores only decreased by three points and the reading gap has increased by two points.
Some will argue that the achievement gap between minorities and whites is essential for the cause of educational justice. In Latasha Gandy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype: Standardized Testing is Good for Students, Families, and Communities,” she claims that despite receiving lower scores, minority students and schools benefit from standardized tests. Since the public is now aware of the achievement gap, she argues that there will be more of a call to action to fix the problems in lower performing schools. However, achievement gaps have been documented for decades, as shown in the aforementioned NCES achievement gap statistics and progress is still slow. The public has known about achievement gaps for a while but again progress has been at a crawl. To this day, there is not a proven method in place to eliminate the achievement gap. Some have proposed solutions but they have not been implemented into mainstream testing and are not proven to work. Gandy and other supporters of this argument fail to consider the high-stakes nature of testing. If standardized tests had low stakes, then using them as a tool for educational justice would be satisfactory. In reality, the implications of these tests grow more and more over time and could follow the students for months even years after the final answer in circled on the paper. Low performing schools lose funding, low performing students risk being held back academically, and communities with low performing students are more susceptible to crime. Two studies, the Cambridge Study on Delinquent Development and the Pittsburgh Youth Study, found strong links between low performance and adolescent delinquency. One test can ruin a student’s future and lessen already scarce resources for some public schools. So, to say that the achievement gap is benefitting minority communities is insulting to the students who every year face the uphill battle of these tests and continue to be frustrated by the result. There may be more awareness of the problem now but that is no consolation to the students who are currently failing and the schools that are struggling. Saying that the achievement gap is in any way beneficial is to truly undermine the effects that standardized testing can have.
To go more in depth about the dangers of high-stakes nature of testing, Kenneth H. Wodtke’s study “How Standardized is School Testing? An Exploratory Observational Study of Standardized Group Testing in Kindergarten” demonstrates how increased pressure influences test scores. The study observed ten kindergarten classrooms, classes 1-5 were from upper-middle class communities and classes 6-10 were from lower income communities who were also participating in a district-sponsored program to raise test scores. Teachers in low income communities that were participating in the program were seven times more likely to commit significant procedural variations, ten times more likely to allow unauthorized item repetitions, and thirty-nine times more likely to cue correct answers than their wealthier counterparts. This study shows that teachers who are pressured, especially by a funded program with the sole purpose of raising scores, are more likely to cheat which clearly devalues not only the test but the value of education as a whole. Wodtke, after observing what he had, deemed that the scores of these ten tests were incomparable to each other since there was mismanagement in one way or another which would ruin test vailidity in eight of the ten classes. Yet, some of the districts in this study used the scores from these very tests to place children into first grade classrooms. The mismanagement of test administration may now have horrible consequences for those students who may have been placed in the wrong classroom. This was just one study of ten classes who were aware that they were being observed. Imagine what happens in other classes around the country that are not being observed.
In addition to the flaws that tests have, there are also aspects that the tests lack altogether. Standardized tests fail to assess important characteristics of students such as but not limited to: creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, curiosity, self-awareness, self-discipline, resourcefulness, and integrity. These characteristics are vital for success in almost any field or endeavor that students will face once they are out of school. Yet, they are judged so intensely based off a score that does not even assess these characteristics. The fact that standardized test scores are so valued and influential but do not assess any of the previously stated characteristics implies that those characteristics are not important which is simply not true. The lack of accountability for factors like critical thinking and resourcefulness have promoted shallow thinking. In Phillip Harris’s “Standardized Tests Do Not Effectively Measure Student Achievement,” he argues that there is “a statistical association between students with high scores on standardized tests and relatively shallow thinking.” Higher scores on tests were associated with copying down answers, guessing, and skipping difficult areas in school coursework. Low scores were more often associated with taking the time to go back over difficult areas, asking questions, and making connections. This is likely because standardized tests require quick answers with little time to think or reason. Therefore, students who perform that way on a day to day basis in class are more likely to do well on standardized tests. Standardized tests have unintentionally promoted shallow thinking by rewarding shallow thinkers with higher scores. This also creates a problem for teachers and parents. They see a passing test score and often assume that that means their child is intellectually developing in the ideal way. This could be true, but in some cases parents and teachers overlook a lacking in other important characteristics due to a high-test score. This could cause academic issues for the child in the future which could have been prevented had they been assessed.
All in all, high-stake standardized testing, which has become the norm in American public schools, is devaluing education by reducing success in school to a number. That alone is an issue but on top of that not every student has the same opportunity to receive a high score. Education suffers at the hand of standardized tests. As a society, we want well-rounded knowledgeable students that will contribute to the next generation yet we create simple standard tests to measure their capability. We accept that a first grader from a low-income area in Detroit can be nationally compared to a first grader from an affluent area in Washington D.C. It is simply not justifiable and it is time for a change. It is time to create accommodating and specific tests that promote high-level thinking and allow every student the right and ability to achieve a high score. It is time to stop using a test score to define education. Tests should be used as educational tools for teachers that help them understand what topics students are struggling with and which they excel in. Tests should not be used to measure teacher quality, determine funding for schools, or to solely determine whether a child passes or fails a grade. Education is worth more than that and one high stakes test should never be used to measure the vast and brilliant knowledge that any given student possesses.
Gandy, Latasha. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Standardized Tests Are Good for Children, Families and Schools.” Education Post. Education Post, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Green, Robert L., and Robert J. Griffore. “The Impact of Standardized Testing on Minority Students.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 49, no. 3, 1980, pp. 238–252.
Hamilton, L. S., Stecher, B. M., Marsh, J. A., McCombs, J. S., Robyn, A., Russell, J. L., et al. (2007). Standards-based accountability under No Child Left Behind: Experiences of teachers and administrators in three states. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
Harris, Phillip, Joan Harris, and Bruce M. Smith. “Standardized Tests Do Not Effectively Measure Student Achievement.” Standardized Testing. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012.Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Mitchell, Ruth. “High-Stakes Testing and Effects on Instruction.” Center for Public Education. Center for Public Education, 6 Mar. 2006. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
“NAEP – Achievement Gaps.” NAEP – Achievement Gaps. National Center for Educational Statistics, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
“NCLB: Narrowing the Curriculum?” NCLB Policy Brief. Center on Education Policy, 1 July 2005. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
Popham, James W. Using Standards and Assessments. 6th ed. Vol. 56. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999. 8-15. Print.
Wodtke, Kenneth H. et al. “How Standardized Is School Testing? An Exploratory Observational Study of Standardized Group Testing in Kindergarten.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, vol. 11, no. 3, 1989, pp. 223–235.