Standardized tests have made a permanent home in the education landscape. With the move to Common Core Standards and the work being done to create nationally accepted teaching standards, the next logical step is the creation of standardized tests aligned to those standards. So yes, they’re here to stay. The question is no longer how do we get rid of them, but how do we reform them so that they’re useful to teachers, students and parents.
Currently, students take a test, which is purported to determine their readiness for the next level of schooling. However, once the test is over, choruses of “When are we going to go back to our regular stuff?” are heard in classrooms throughout the nation. Instead of looking to use the data from the test to inform teaching and learning we anticipate the return to routines.
Well, if you walk into any school, each teacher will have a different reason why tests don’t matter. Some will point to the trend found in Primary Sources, which says that only 51% of teachers feel that the standardized tests are an accurate measure of student progress and only 26% believe they’re an accurate reflection of student achievement.
Isn’t that the point of it all? To effectively and accurately measure student achievement so we can gauge our progress against competing nations?
At least that was the alarm sounded with this charged statement found in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 Reagan Administration report on public education:
“…the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur-- others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”
So how do we ensure that tests are helpful tools for teaching and learning?
There are a few things we can do to improve the dreaded hours watching children bent over desks, bubbling in answers.
- The first modification would be to strip away our overreliance on these scores which are used to promote students, evaluate teachers and rate schools. When making high-stakes decisions, schools should be encouraged to use multiple measures of student achievement, including classroom formative assessments, which according to Primary Sources is the most important measure of student achievement. This would serve to underscore the importance of learning in every conceivable moment, and not simply cramming with test prep.
- To ensure relevance for parents, students and teachers, tests results should be available in time to improve students’ areas of concern. As it stands, some schools barely get the results in time to make promotional decisions. This becomes especially detrimental during major transition years, such as from elementary to junior high. (I’ve experienced students being denied elementary school graduation based on a rushed pass/fail grade from the state, only to find out in October that they actually passed and could begin Junior High.) Presently, standardized tests waste valuable instruction time because unlike a traffic signal, they only tell us when to stop and go, not when to yield. That moment where you’re deciding whether to put your foot on the gas or the brake is where reflection occurs. In schools, pausing to analyze patterns in the data would better inform teachers, parents and students themselves.
- Lastly, (and only because I’m running out of space, not ideas) if we use multiple measures and improve the timing of results, we can go back to multiple-choice tests, which remove some subjectivity. The short response and extended response questions in both the reading and math tests leave too much room for human interpretation. Just think “tomato, tomahto” to the nth degree. Teachers will inevitably reach different decisions when grading student responses, which is why student performance shouldn’t be the sole basis for high-stakes decisions.
Thanks to reports like A Nation at Risk and legislation like No Child Left Behind, tests now govern students’ and teachers’ lives. I won’t suggest that tests should disappear, that would be unrealistic. They are valuable for observing national trends and with the right forethought and design, can be valuable at the school level as well. I am proposing reform; multiple measures, time for reflection and a higher probability of objectivity.
Unfortunately, I cannot offer relief from directions that don’t make sense or questions that seemingly have more than one right answer. But maybe when the next testing season begins, someone will have deduced ways to make them more meaningful to the people they most directly affect: students, teachers and parents.