Saturday, November 8, 2008

Standardized Testing

Standardized testing has been a part of American academics for generations. They are currently being used by school districts, state boards of education, colleges, universities, businesses and professions. The mobility of American society created the need for a measure that can be utilized anywhere a child might move during their school years. Sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately, standardized tests are being used to gauge things not intended in their design. “People keep believing that to show you’re tough or to raise standards means you increase test score requirements, when in fact, you’re doing neither. You’re increasing the potency of severely flawed assessments.” (Sacks ¶45) Standardized tests ineffectively measure a student’s academic success, placement and progress. Incorrectly using these tests increases academic inequality, misdirects education policy priorities of elected representatives, and results in the poor use of education resources by administrators.

As a young student, my I.Q. score (originally designed to serve as a guide for identifying students who could benefit from extra help in school) was used for academic level placement in grades 1-12 and as a qualifying criterion for gifted and talented programs of study. As a college student, my ACT score was used to determine eligibility for admission, placement in English and Math classes, and eligibility for scholarships. Colleges continue to use standardized tests to decide admission even though “researchers consistently find that adding test scores to the admissions equation results in fewer women and minorities being accepted than if their academic records alone are considered.” (Sacks ¶16). Even athletic eligibility is being determined by standardized test scores.
“Despite strong opposition from FairTest and other groups, the NCAA recently raised the standardized test scores required for athletic eligibility. The NCAA changed its policy contrary to compelling evidence that the real effect of the new rules would be to exclude many minorities from scholarships who nevertheless would have succeeded in college.” (Sacks ¶44)
As an elected school board trustee, I witnessed firsthand the effect that test scores had on education policy. No Child Left Behind and School Finance Reform were big issues in the state of Texas. Test scores fueled the battle over the three R’s – resources, representation and reputation. The battle is still waging even though almost fifteen years ago the U.S. Office of Technological Assessment concluded “It now appears the use of these tests misled policymakers and the public about the progress of students, and in many places hindered the implementation of genuine school reforms.” (Sacks ¶30) The need for reform is self-evident, but using test scores to decide where “[elected officials and educators] ought to direct resources and efforts” (Gerstner ¶4) is entirely outside the scope of their design. They are an easy statistic to manipulate.

As a college student who plans on a career in administration, I am learning to see situations through an administrator’s perspective. I understand the attractiveness of standardized testing; it is easily affordable, it is easy to administer, and it is easy to grade. But life has also taught me that what is easier in the short run is usually worse in the long run. Alternative methods of assessment are out there, like this one from a college student from Santa Clara University;
“By having skilled teachers assess student academic performance over time through portfolios, projects, and exhibitions, not one-shot tests, we can achieve genuine accountability and improve student learning.” (Takasugi, ¶9)
These methods are impractical to administer (Where will these teachers come from? Will they teach in a classroom also? How do you justify the expense of a teacher who does not teach?) and they require someone with specialty training in assessment. These obstacles are annoying for large, metropolitan districts, but the same obstacles present a Herculean task for small, rural districts. There are plenty of people out there telling administrators how to do their job better, but the fixes are mostly short-term and designed to make everyone feel better right now with disregard for their future consequences.

Standardized tests have their place. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children:
“The purpose of testing must be to improve services for children and ensure that children benefit from their educational experiences. Decisions about testing and assessment instruments must be based on the usefulness of the assessment procedure for improving services to children and improving outcomes for children” (NAEYC, ¶2)When these tests are used inappropriately, it causes system-wide problems in the education system. Eliminating the tests completely is not the solution, but steps can be taken by schools, governments and by the public to put the tests and their scores into proper perspective. By doing our part, we can improve education for all students. (Works cited available on request)

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