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An Argumentative Piece on the Usefulness of Standardized Testing in Schools

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Although standardized testing shows where students are in school and their knowledge in school. I believe students should not have to pass the test to pass the test to be promoted to the next grade. Well, different people have different motivations. For some, a demand for tests seems to reflect a deliberate strategy for promoting traditional, ‘back-to-basics’ instruction. Whether or not that’s the intent, it’s often the consequence of an emphasis on standardized test scores. Other people, meanwhile, are determined to cast public schools in the worst possible light as a way of paving the way for the privatization of education. After all, if your goal was to serve up our schools to the marketplace, where the point of reference is what maximizes profit rather than what benefits children, it would be perfectly logical for you to administer a test that many students would fail in order to create the impression that public schools were worthless. Not everyone has ulterior motives for testing, of course. Some people just insist that schools have to be held ‘accountable,’ and they don’t know any other way to achieve that goal.

Even here, though, it’s worth inquiring into the sudden, fierce demands for accountability. The famous Nation at Risk report released by the Reagan Administration in 1983 was part of a concerted campaign based on exaggerated and often downright misleading evidence to stir up widespread concerns about our schools and, consequently, demands for more testing. There’s another built-in constituency: the corporations that manufacture and score the exams, thereby reaping enormous profits on revenues estimated at nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in 1999 and continuing to grow rapidly. More often than not, these companies then turn around and sell teaching materials designed to raise scores on their own tests. The worst tests are often the most appealing to school systems: It is fast, easy, and therefore relatively inexpensive to administer a multiple-choice exam that arrives from somewhere else and is then sent back to be graded by a machine at lightning speed. There is little incentive to replace these tests with more meaningful forms of assessment that require human beings to evaluate the quality of students’ accomplishments. ‘Efficient tests tend to drive out less efficient tests, leaving many important abilities untested and untaught.’ Testing allows politicians to show they’re concerned about school achievement and serious about getting tough with students and teachers. Test scores offer a quick-and-easy although, as we’ll see, by no means accurate way to chart progress.

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Demanding high scores fits nicely with the use of political slogans like ‘tougher standards’ or ‘accountability’ or ‘raising the bar.’ If the public often seems interested in test results, it may be partly because of our cultural penchant for attaching numbers to things. Any aspect of learning (or life) that appears in numerical form seems reassuringly scientific; if the numbers are getting larger over time, we must be making progress. Concepts such as intrinsic motivation and intellectual exploration are difficult for some minds to grasp, whereas test scores, like sales figures or votes, can be calculated and tracked and used to define success and failure. Broadly speaking, it is easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness, easier to rate how well we’re doing something than to ask whether what we’re doing makes sense. Not everyone realizes that the process of coming to understand ideas in a classroom is not always linear or quantifiable or, in fact, that ‘measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.’ This question is much more complicated than it may appear. Is objectivity really a desirable or a realistic goal? Presumably, an ‘objective’ assessment is one that’s not dependent on subjective factors such as the beliefs and values of different individuals; everyone would have to agree that something was good or bad. But disagreement is a fact of life, and it isn’t necessarily something to be transcended. You and I will inevitably differ in our judgments about politics and ethics, about the quality of the movies we see and the meals we eat. It is odd and troubling that in educating our children ‘we expect a different standard of assessment than is normal in the rest of our lives.’ Too much standardization suggests an effort to pretend that evaluations aren’t ultimately judgments, that subjectivity can be overcome.

This is a dangerous illusion. Testing specialists always seem to be chasing the holy grail of ‘interrater reliability,’ but there’s no reason to expect that people will always see eye-to-eye about the value of what students have done. If they do, that suggests either that they have obediently set aside their own judgments in order to rigidly apply someone else’s criteria, or that the assessment in question is superficial. For example, it’s easier to get agreement on whether a semicolon has been used correctly than on whether an essay represents clear thinking. The quest for objectivity may lead us to measure students on the basis of criteria that are a lot less important. For the sake of the argument, though, let’s assume that objective assessments are both possible and desirable. The critical point is that standardized tests do not provide such objectivity. It’s easy to assume otherwise when a precise numerical score has been assigned to a student or school. But the testing process is nothing at all like, say, measuring the size or weight of an object. The results may sound scientific, but they emerge from the interaction of two sets of human beings: the invisible adults who make up the questions and the rows of kids, scrunched into desks, frantically writing or filling in bubbles.

First, we need to know about the content of the test. Are we measuring something important? One can refer to it as ‘objective’ in the sense that it’s scored by machines, but people wrote the questions which may be biased or murky or stupid and people decided to include them on the exam. Reasonable doubts often can be raised about which answers ought to be accepted, even at the elementary school level, where you might expect the questions to be more straightforward. Thus, to read narrative accounts of students who think through a given question and arrive at a plausible answer only to learn that the answer has been coded as incorrect is to understand the limits of these putatively objective assessment instruments. The significance of the scores becomes even more dubious once we focus on the experience of students. For example, test anxiety has grown into a subfield of educational psychology, and its prevalence means that the tests producing this reaction are not giving us a good picture of what many students really know and can do.

The more a test is made to ‘count’ in terms of being the basis for promoting or retaining students, for funding or closing schools the more that anxiety is likely to rise and the less valid the scores become. Then there are the students who take the tests but don’t take them seriously. A friend of mine remembers neatly filling in chose ovals with his pencil in such a way that they took a picture of a Christmas tree. He was assigned to a low-level class as a result, since his score on a single test was all the evidence anyone needed of his capabilities. Therefor even those test-takers who are not quite so creative may just guess wildly, fill in ovals randomly, or otherwise blow off the whole exercise, understandably regarding it as a waste of time. In short, it may be that a good proportion of students either couldn’t care less about the tests, on the one hand, or care so much that they choke, on the other. Either way, the scores that result aren’t very meaningful. Anyone who can relate to these descriptions of what goes through the minds of real students on test day ought to think twice before celebrating a high score, complaining about a low one, or using standardized tests to judge schools.

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