Are standardized tests helping or hurting students? | The Tylt
For decades, standardized tests have played a key role in the U.S. education system. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind, a George W. Bush-era bill that penalized schools for not meeting certain testing standards, the importance of such tests only increased. While the bill has since been replaced, standardized tests still play a critical role in determining school success. Advocates say it is an invaluable way to judge school effectiveness. Opponents say the tests are biased and harmful to critical thinking. What do you think?
Are standardized tests helping or hurting students?
Proponents of standardized tests like Dr. Gail Gross, a Huffington Post contributor, argue standardized tests provide the most straightforward and comprehensive measure of whether students in any particular school are learning.
We must not fear that which can offer us the best possible opportunity to transfer information in the most effective way. One important measure for that transfer is the standardized test. Such testing gives the teacher important diagnostic information about what each child is learning in relation to what he has been taught. Only in this way can the teacher know if the student needs intervention and remediation; if the curriculum matches the course requirements; or if the teaching methods needed are in some way lacking and require adjustment.
Furthermore, the standardized test gives valuable insight into broader issues, such as the standard curriculum important to grade level requirements, and an education reference point for fair and equitable education for all children in all schools — district by district and state by state. This can also lead to better teaching skills, as teachers will be held accountable to help their students meet these standards.
Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at a nonprofit education research and consulting firm, not only agrees that tests are the best way to determine student success, but that testing is needed every year to provide an adequate portrait of students' learning.
[A]nnual testing has tremendous value. It lets schools follow students’ progress closely, and it allows for measurement of how much students learn and grow over time, not just where they are in a single moment.
It also allows for a much more nuanced look at student performance. For example, rather than simply looking at average overall school performance, where high performers frequently mask what’s happening to low achievers, No Child Left Behind focuses attention on the progress that groups of students are making within schools — a level of analysis that is possible only with annual data. To be confident that the test results aren’t pulled up or down by a few students and to minimize year-to-year variability, states usually consider only groups of at least 30 or 40 students. States are also able to average results over multiple years or across grades.
While trying to gauge a child's success may be the rationale for standardized tests, that is rarely the practical outcome. So many factors go into determining a child's success with standardized tests that are unrelated to their academic abilities. Meredith Broussard, a data journalism professor and parent, conducted an in-depth study into the creation of standardized tests. Broussard wrote in an article for the Atlantic that she found standardized tests are created by textbook companies, rather than schools and educators.
[S]tandardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.
All of this has to do with the economics of testing. Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies: CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson. These corporations write the tests, grade the tests, and publish the books that students use to prepare for the tests. Houghton Mifflin has a 38 percent market share, according to its press materials. In 2013, the company brought in $1.38 billion in revenue.
Put simply, any teacher who wants his or her students to pass the tests has to give out books from the Big Three publishers. If you look at a textbook from one of these companies and look at the standardized tests written by the same company, even a third grader can see that many of the questions on the test are similar to the questions in the book. In fact, Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook.
If students do not have access to these textbooks, they are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to standardized tests. Even if their knowledge base is appropriate for their grade-level, being unacquainted with the language and style of the test could negatively impact their results.
Parents across the country are frustrated with the way their children are being "taught to the test," rather than being taught critical thinking skills. Per the New York Times:
A group of black parents in Philadelphia who planned to have their children opt out of the Pennsylvania state tests were featured recently on an education podcast called “Have You Heard.” They objected to the amount of money being made by the test-making companies and suggested that schools focused on testing were not cultivating students to be leaders.
“What we end up doing,” one mother said, “is creating a bunch of soldiers that, in order to pass, in order to get out of whatever their situation is, they will follow directions. And we will have a community of people that merely follow directions.”
Many educators and parents say the tests have forced schools with low scores to focus all their attention on basic reading and math skills, to the detriment of subjects like science and social studies, let alone art. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools were rated based on their test scores and those that did not improve could eventually be closed. (The reauthorized law passed last year gives states more leeway in rating schools and handling those that do not meet targets.)