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June 20, 2021

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The realities of standardized testing in education

Standardized testing is at the heart of most issues regarding education and is a billion-dollar industry. The main benefit of testing is providing an efficient way to rank and sort students, but there are several shortcomings of its use in education. Recognizing that it will continue, there is importance in understanding how testing influences public education.

Testing perpetuates the failure of many students, particularly those from low-income families. Test scores create enduring academic ranks and labels for students. Scores provide false measures of accountability for teachers, administrators, schools and districts. Testing does little to improve educational practice or student outcomes. Seemingly objective test scores create political fodder used to denigrate education.

During colonial times and the early years of our republic, education was the province of the wealthy. Recitation, memorization and oral exams were used to measure learning.

Public education was not established with the intention that every student would be educated to the same level. Public schools were created to discover academic potential in students from middle- and lower-income families. With an increased number of students, testing provided an efficient way to rank students by intelligence and ability.

Multiple-choice tests became the mainstream method of testing as computers and scanners were developed for scoring. Students could be easily measured and classified. Academic failure or success now had a numerical identity.

With the extended use of testing, a belief developed that all students could achieve a designated test score level. Failure was due to a lack of student motivation or teacher incompetence. It then became the responsibility of public schools to ensure that this false promise was fulfilled.

The educational mantra that “All kids can learn” needs the following caveat: “But not at the same rate and not to the same level.” There is no human endeavor in which every participant can achieve at an average or above-average level. It is not possible to bring all test scores to a common level.

Children begin school with different levels of academic readiness. Gaps in academic ability, particularly reading, are apparent in early elementary. Students are sorted into instructional groups by ability. Ranks and labels are created that follow students throughout an academic career. Testing solidifies and preserves this condition.

Gaps in academic ability persist. Test score rank stays in a relatively narrow range after third grade. Test performance is largely influenced by test-taking ability.

Standardized tests are designed to produce a spread of scores. Time parameters contribute to score spread. Performance relies on how quickly a test-taker can comprehend and process questions. When the clock is running, rapid recall is rewarded. A major portion of test preparation programs is directed toward familiarity with test format and time parameters.

Time limitations on standardized tests prevent a fair chance for many students to demonstrate their knowledge or skill. Ensuring the failure of some students is a designed outcome of state tests. Most classroom assessments allow students the necessary time for achievement. Teachers want all of their students to be successful in the classroom.

Knowledge bases of state and federal tests are too extensive to cover in three-quarters of a school year. Even if the curriculum is aligned to state standards, it becomes a guessing game for teachers of which content to include in their lesson plans. Curriculum content and instructional methods are mostly common across education and have limited influence on standardized test scores.

Annual state assessments provide redundant data and do little to improve instruction. Teachers are already aware of student achievement levels through internal curriculum measures and classroom assessments. Data from state tests arrives at the end of the school year or the next fall, when students have advanced a grade level, too late to apply results in a meaningful way. Test scores have little or no value to individual students, excepting college entrance exams.

Controversy over eliminating state-required tests this spring is much ado about nothing. Individual student test results will vary little from previous years and learning deficits will be made up in coming years. The void of state testing will not largely change academic outcomes.

The composition of the student population is the major determinant of school test scores. Selective schools such as private, charter, theme and magnet schools garner false credit for generating higher scores. Suburban schools outperform inner-city schools, year after year.

Educators need to accept that they are unable to close test score gaps and have the courage to express the realities of standardized tests in education. Chasing state standardized test scores is a futile political exercise, not an educational one.

Greg Wieman is a retired educator with a doctorate in educational leadership from Eastern Michigan University. He can be contacted at [email protected]