If you are a student in the American public-school system, then you have become familiar with the typical school year format. You learn as much as you can from August to April, then May is reserved for whatever that state’s particular standardized test is.
Because of the accountability aspect of No Child Left Behind, there is an increased emphasis on standardized testing. The increased emphasis on testing on behalf of the government led to increased emphasis on testing in schools. Some schools responded by teaching testing strategies right before the standardized test period. Others began to “teach to the test”.
This has unsurprisingly, led to a backlash against standardized testing. Many teachers, students, and parents alike have complained about too much testing and schools teaching students just enough to pass the state exams.
While there are legitimate criticisms of standardized testing, the pendulum has now swung completely the other way. Valid critiques about common practices in schools have given way to half-baked notions about using non-conventional testing methods or completely abolishing testing altogether.
Here are few thoughts to consider next time you hear either of these arguments:
1. Most criticism about testing is really about the test.
90% of the time you see someone complaining about standardized testing what they are really complaining about is the actual test itself. It’s okay if you have a problem with the questions on the ISTEP, but that is fundamentally different than having a problem with standardized testing in general.
2. Teaching to the test is fine if the test is okay.
To piggyback off the last point, if the test is adequate then it is more than acceptable to teach toward it. When people use the phrase “teach to the test” they typically envision teachers teaching a narrow subset of information that only matters for the test while neglecting other valuable information. The easiest way to get schools to avoid doing this is to revise the exams to cover all the information that we believe to be important for the benchmark. There is nothing wrong with aligning your classroom instruction to standards and in theory that is what the test should be aligned to as well. If we have issues with “teaching to the test” then we really have issues with the standards or there is misalignment.
3. Accountability is important.
Our public-school system is one of the largest expenses of our government. They must have a way to see if they are getting what they paid for. Assessment is that way. It may not be a good way, but it is really the only way we currently have. Standardized exams are the only way that we can accurately compare student achievement across different districts and student groups. The government and we the people have the right to know if our students are actually learning the standards that our tax dollars are paying for them to learn. Without such mechanisms, we would throw money at programs that didn’t work. We would replicate methods that weren’t successful. Parents would have little academic data to make decisions about where to send their children.
4. Punishment is not an inevitable part of assessment.
Many schools worry and complain about the harsh penalties that come along with underperforming on the test, but that really is not about testing itself. That is more about how the government chooses to use those results. Sure, there are more productive actions the government could take because of poor test results other than closing schools and firing teachers, but that is not really an ingrained feature of the test and this can and should be addressed separately.
The standardized testing period is a high stress time for students and teachers alike. We all think our lives would be a little easier without it, and that is probably true, but that doesn’t mean we should completely get rid of it. State assessments have their place. We need to improve the process not abolish it.