Standardized Testing: an Unreliable Tool for Measuring and Evaluating Student Achievement

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Standardized testing has brought about a plethora of negative effects since the amount of testing was increased due to the national act, No Child Left Behind. This government program was brought into effect in 2002 and has seen many amendments and improvements to the system. This program promoted a substantial increase in the amount of testing and evaluation of teachers and students alike across all educational levels. Students today are being tested more than ever before. Our country has typically trailed behind our international counterparts in the realm of education and learning. The act was designed to raise performance and strengthen American weak spots, particularly science and math, when compared to other countries. However, this act caused more negative effects than originally thought. Standardized testing today is unreliable, is not improving standards in the United States, and is drastically changing the way students learn. The program and standardized testing as a whole, is flawed and a change needs to be considered.

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Standardized Testing and the Negative Effects it has brought to Education Today

“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn't be here. I guarantee you that” (Obama, n.d.). Current First Lady, Michelle Obama, declared these words on the controversial topic of standardized testing in education today. Education today is split on this controversial issue. Many, including myself, want to see a change in the way testing is used in education today because standardized testing simply is not getting the job done. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tests are administered to students to evaluate progress and see if schools are meeting standards set by various educational programs set by No Child Left Behind. Standardized testing has become an extremely large part of education today. Although many support the use of standardized testing in school today, the system needs to be changed because there is substantial evidence that this testing is an unreliable measure of performance, is not improving standards, and is changing the way children learn for the future.

While standardized testing continues to be a hot button issue in education today, many stand for the use of it and say that it is essential in schools systems for evaluation. These supporters of the system believe that it puts every student on the same level and scale due to the fact that the same test is being administered to all students. However, some students simply do not match up with one another academically. Students of color, ELL students, students with disabilities and low income students are failing tests at significantly higher rates and are not on the same scale as middle to high income students (Sadker, 2004, par. 10). Administering the same test and “creating identical expectations for all students places the poorer ones at a distinct disadvantage” (Sadker, 2004, par. 10). Students simply cannot be placed on the same scale with these disadvantages. The real barriers to achievement are firmly in place: racism, poverty, sexism, and a disregard for individual differences place students at different academic levels (Sadker, 2014, par. 14). As standardized testing continues to become more prominent, supporters also state that it makes teachers focus curriculum on what is most important. Nonetheless, high stake testing has forced out much of the curriculum that makes schools and engaging and enriching experience (Walker, 2014, par. 5). Curriculum refocusing has changed what is being taught drastically. “In a national survey two out of three teachers believed that preparing for tests takes time away from teaching important but non-tested topics” (Sadker, 2014, par.12). This change in curriculum is also taking away deeper learning. Many parents call for improving curriculum to include creativity teaching (Nagel, 2013, par. 15). Standardized testing has vastly changed the curriculum being taught today. Although some amount of standardized testing is necessary, the means by which it is being done in educational systems today are flawed.

Foremost, standardized testing is unreliable. The means by which students across America today are being evaluated upon cannot be relied on for accurate representation of academic achievement. One test on one given day simply will not account for what a particular student knows at that moment in time. Standardized testing is unreliable for two major reasons. Anxiety and large amounts of cheating that come with it combine into one, and the fact that test scores do not measure a student’s higher learning is the second.

Furthermore, many students suffer from testing anxiety and will either cheat or take drugs to improve scores. This is becoming a common phenomenon across education today, and it cannot be avoided. The Columbia University Office of Work and Life (2013), which contains various educational professors, proclaimed, “Many students develop test anxiety which hinders performance” (par. 8). These students are not at ease when it comes to testing, and they struggle remaining calm under the pressure of the test. The article, “A serious problem” (2005), from the American Test Anxieties Association expressed the following, about 16 to 20 percent of students suffer from extreme testing anxiety while another 18 percent have moderately high testing anxiety (par. 2). This means that 34 to 38 percent of students suffer from a considerably high amount of testing anxiety. This means an estimated 10 million kids are suffering from anxiety on standardized testing (A serious problem, 2005, par. 2). Anxiety brings about a plethora of negative effects to these affected students. These students blank on tests, their working memory is drastically reduced, reasoning is confused, and test scores are decreased (A serious problem, 2005, par. 3). Due to the large amounts of anxiety seen in students, the scores are often extremely unreliable and distorted, as the students’ scores are not an accurate reflection of what they know. However, students with or without anxiety are also causing scores to be even more unreliable. Academic dishonesty or cheating is one of the most prominent things in testing today. David Jaffe (2015), a professor at Stanford University, confirmed that “academic cheating begins to set in at the junior high level” (par. 21). Early on students are finding ways to cheat the system and improve testing scores. Cheating begins in junior high and gets stronger as the student progresses through the educational system. 86 percent of high school students said yes to having cheated on a test at some point in school (Jaffe, 2015, par. 8). Students across all backgrounds are engaging in forms of academic dishonesty. These students seek out good grades and high test scores. In the past it was the struggling student who was more likely to cheat, now it’s the above average students who are cheating as well (Jaffe, 2015, par. 5). These above average students are under large amounts of pressure and stress as they often try to manage school work with other extracurricular activities. Education will continue to see increased cheating amongst students as the pressure continues to rise (Jaffe, 2015, par. 15). The forms in which a student can cheat are beginning to vary, nonetheless. Typical cheating consists of looking off one another, copying down an assessment, or taking pictures of testing items. But now, many students are cheating through the use of drugs such as Adderall, or Ritalin. Alan DeSantis, professor and research at the University of Kentucky, found that 30 percent of all students at the university have used such drugs to boost testing performance (Cooper, 2011, par. 4). These numbers are reflective of test taking drug use across high school and college education systems alike. This large combination of students with high amounts of anxiety, or taking drugs to boost testing scores, leaves standardized testing in a state of unreliability and is a highly inaccurate way to measure students.

Additionally, test scores do not measure higher learning, and score changes are temporary and not due to long term changes in learning. Standardized testing utilizes the concept of adequate yearly progress. Now while this concept may need to be applied in some areas of schooling, it is not accurate. It is inaccurate because adequate yearly progress only measures if a student is proficient at test time, student performance needs to be evaluated over the whole year of learning not just a single time (Office of Work and Life, 2013, par. 10). In addition to using adequate yearly progress to measure results, the tests themselves are unreliable. The article “How standardized testing damages education” (2012) from the organization FairTest, expressed that standardized tests only measure a small part of students’ knowledge, and that progress on work and behavior is far more accurate (par.7). This reaffirms the fact that standardized tests cannot measure the true higher learning students possess and should be tested on. Michael Hout (2012), a sociology professor with an emphasis in education, proclaimed that any test can measure a student’s knowledge in one small area but it is tests that measure cognitive ability that are most important, yet harder to design and evaluate (par.6). Testing small areas of knowledge will not better the student and higher learning cannot be measured through this system. Knowledge that goes beyond the test must be evaluated. High test scores predict high test scores but not problem solving skills, good work habits, honesty, or any cherished value (Sadker, 2004, par. 17). As testing time continues to become more prominent these values will continue to not be tested, and therefore will not be seen in students of the future. Test prep has actually been seen to be detrimental, as a nine year study by the National Research Council concluded that emphasis on testing yielded little learning progress and actually caused harm (How standardized testing, 2012, par. 2). If these tests are measuring learning progress why should we continue to use them? There needs to be a way to properly measure student achievement. “Assessment based on real learning tasks is more useful and accurate for measuring achievement” (How standardized testing, 2012, par. 7). This method of testing is far more useful than the methods we are using today. Besides not measuring higher learning, these tests are even more unreliable due to temporary score changes. Many external factors also affect performance, “an argument the morning of a test puts a student’s thoughts elsewhere” (Office of Work and Life, 2013, par. 8). These outside factors hinder performance for many students. It is these arguments on test days, and outside thoughts that make testing a small area of knowledge on one given day unreliable. In addition to student factors causing tests to be unreliable, teachers can contribute too. Many school districts have given incentives, such as cash, to teachers whose students do well on tests (Hout, 2012, par. 3). This cash incentive may motivate the teacher to cheat, or allow their students to cheat in order to receive the reward. The fact that standardized testing does not measure a student’s higher learning values, and that many students and even teachers are affected by outside temporary factors leaves standardized testing as an inaccurate way to measure progress. The system needs a change and it needs it sooner rather than later.

Secondly, testing is not improving standards in the United States. The main purpose for the implementation of more standardized tests was to improve our national standards and get on par with other countries. These standards have not seen a change and have actually had adverse effects on education. Student achievement in major areas has fallen significantly, and the schools focus too much on these standards and not enough on personal development.

Moreover, the large amount of standardized testing the nation administers to students is not helping to raise achievement when compared to other nations. The United States is the only economically advanced nation to rely heavily on standardized testing (How standardized test, 2012, par. 10). Our reliance on standardized testing has shown little to no improvement, however. The main reason for these large amounts of testing is the educational program No Child Left Behind. This program has shown little results throughout various tests. Monty Neil (2015), executive director of FairTest, reported that score gaps on the ACT, SAT and PISA were often wider after NCLB was put into effect (par. 5). He also reported that “PISA scores have declined since NCLB was passed, and ACT scores have been flat” (Neil, 2015, par. 5). The PISA is an international test given to thousands of students is one of the main tests used to compare educational growth to other countries. Lyndsey Layton (2013), educational reporter for the Washington Post, proclaimed that “scores in math, reading and science posted by the United States were flat while their counterparts elsewhere — particularly in Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian provinces or countries — soared” (par.1). The US continues to progress when compared to world standards on these tests, despite the huge emphasis on standardized testing. These test scores offer fresh evidence for those who argue that the United States is losing ground to global competitors and others who say a decade’s worth of school reform has done little to improve educational outcomes (Layton, 2013, par. 4). The system today simply is not getting the job done when compared to other economically developing countries. The countries with the strongest PISA scores have a direct link to rapidly growing economies, and those economies are investing in education (Bidwell, 2013, par. 21). They also possess something that may be putting them father ahead right from the start. Allie Bidwell (2013), education reporter for US News and World Report, expressed that “the US trails behind almost every developed country in the world when it comes to access to high quality preschool” (par.21). These countries are providing kids of little age with the highest possible education for early schooling. This not only sets the performance marks apart among students, but drastically widens the gap. Lack of achievement not only leaves it mark on testing but also on the real world. “Poor educational performance limits access to employment and widens social inequalities” (Bidwell, 2013, par. 11). Aside from not raising scores, the US may fall behind other countries in the job force and in the social aspects of life.

Allie Bidwell (2013), educational reporter for US News and World Report affirmed; while the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers, and closing schools – has failed to improve the quality of American public education.

The basis for implementing more standardized testing may have been good, but the long lasting negative effects have affected more than just the classroom.

Equally important is the fact that school focus too much on these standards and not enough on personal development. NCLB has created a culture in education that places the focus in the wrong direction. Noline Rooks (2012), an associate professor at Cornell University, express that schools focus to highly on testing as it is used to admit students to programs, allocate funding, and evaluate teachers (par. 6). Testing is used in a variety of ways now and is the main focus in education today. However, many feel that the focus has shifted in the wrong way. “In a nationwide poll of 1000 public school teachers, Education Week found two-thirds felt their schools became too focused on state test” (Sadker, 2004, par. 4). If the teachers themselves are not satisfied with the way the educational system today why should we continue to operate under those standards? With these standards come loads of increased pressure to perform. Tim Walker (2014), writer for the National Education Association, confirmed that 72 percent of teachers surveyed by the NEA said they felt moderate to extreme pressure by both school and district administrators (par. 3). These standards are simply changing the classroom for the worse. Increased pressure has long lasting effects on education. The teachers reflect this pressure upon the students and expect them to perform at a high level. Nonetheless, teachers in the public school system recognized for excellence are leaving for private schools where test prep does not rule the curriculum (Sadker, 2004, par. 12). Schools simply are shifting their focus in the wrong direction. Schools instead should be focusing more on student develop and not various tests scores. “Screening and readiness tests are frequently inaccurate and can lead to misdiagnosis of student learning needs” (How standard testing, 2012, par. 2). These tests are not helping students of today prepare for the needs of tomorrow. One test score should not be used to determine a student’s readiness, as these tests often are generalized and lack broad knowledge. The schools focus on tests clearly undermines what a student really knows. High school graduation tests do not promote knowledge or skills needed for college or skilled work (How standardized testing, 2012, par. 2). The focus needs to be on getting a student ready for life beyond high school, not evaluating them on a test of useless information. The schools should spend much more time on student development and less on evaluation. Each students needs should be the main focus because when students fall behind these problems persist throughout academic development and can hinder them later on (Bidwell, 2013, par. 30). Overall, a clear misunderstanding of what to focus on in education is hindering performance, and standardized testing is to blame. Student development should be the main goal, not performance indicators on a certain test and a change needs to be administered to the current system very soon.

Lastly, and arguably the most important, is the fact that standardized testing is changing the way students learn. These tests have completely transformed the landscape of education today for the worse. Students are being taught completely different than the educators of today were taught. Teaching to the test is a common occurrence in the classroom and is drastically hindering creativity. Test prep is also taking away from other equally important topics that need to be covered.

Correspondingly, teaching to the test is a phenomenon that has swept and blanketed itself over classrooms today. The addition of more standardized testing has brought about negative testing consequences including an extraordinary narrowing of curriculum and a huge increase in teaching to the test (How standardized tests, 2012, par. 2). Teaching to the test is the preparation of the students to take a standardized test and focusing the curriculum specifically for a certain test on a subject. It is common to see this happening in education today. This teaching to the test fosters a boring atmosphere and lack of creativity in the classroom (Office of Work/Life, 2013, par. 9). Pressure is put on teachers to promote this atmosphere and a lot of it is due to administration. Administration often offers rewards to teachers whose students score well on tests, and on the contrary if they don’t perform they face punishment. “Incentives can encourage teachers to teach to the test by narrowing their focus to the material most likely to appear on the test” (Hout, 2012, par.6). This factor directly contributes to further teaching to the test and the facts directly support this. “79 percent of teachers acknowledge that they spend time instructing students on test taking skills” (Sadker, 2004, par.4). Test prep puts all students under one same roof, a roof where everyone is expected to perform. This focused has shifted teaching altogether. “By measuring all students against the same yardsticks of literacy and numeracy, individual creativity and differences are lost or denigrated” (Sadker, 2004, par.17). This same roof, is exceptionally flawed. Values that many educators and especially parents of these students are being forgotten, like creativity. In fact, “increasing numbers of parents no longer want their children to be exposed to a one size fits all education approach” (Walker, 2014, par. 4). This one size fits all not only does not work but is upsetting parents across the nation. The main thing that this system fails to address is that students need the opportunity to express their individual creativity. A survey conducted by Abobe reported that 90 percent of US parents out of the 4000 surveyed strongly agreed that creativity needs to be taught to fuel the economies of the future (Nagel, 2013, par.4). Teaching to the test does not promote creativity what so ever. This dry and bland environment does nothing to unlock the creativity students have. Teachers are also realizing what the classroom has come to. “89 percent of educators agreed that they can do more to promote and teach creativity” (Nagel, 2013, par.7). If the teachers themselves are in agreement that teaching to the test takes away a cherished principle that needs to be taught, a change needs to be made. “Our schools can do much more than teach test-taking skills; they can promote creativity, caring and more meaningful learning, what we call enduring lessons” (Sadker, 2004, par.15). By and large, the current system has taken a turn down the wrong road. Teaching to the test and the lack of creativity shown in schools today is not the path to send students upon. A change needs to be made to accurately represent what educators and parents aspire to see in education today.

Likewise, test prep time is taking away time for other subjects such as the arts, science, social studies, and other extracurricular subjects. Test prep is shifting the focus in the wrong direction in classrooms today. Teaching has been completely redeveloped with the change that has been brought about by more standardized testing. Schools are also changing their focus on which subjects are the most important. “85 percent of teachers report their school gives less attention to subjects that are not on the state tests” (Sadker, 2004, par.4). Schools are under the impression that because a certain area is not tested it should be ignored and taught less. In fact, entire subject areas like music, art, social studies, and foreign language are de-emphasized because they are not being tested (Sadker, 2004, par.4). Standardized testing has significantly affected the classroom and the way students are being taught for the worse. Teaching to the test is the common occurrence now as the goal is simply to raise scores. 52 percent of teachers said they spend too much time on test prepping. (Walker, 2014, par.7). Teachers are now being forced to change the way they want to teach in order to prep for standardized tests. This drastically affects the way students learn in a negative way. “Students spend lots of time in preparing for standardized tests and therefore skip the daily routines of playing and exercising” (Office of Work/Life, 2013, par.13). Students should not be taught to the test and should not be removed of daily activities and creativity. Some schools have reduced or taken away recess to increase scores and spend more time prepping (Office of Work/Life, 2013, par. 15). Students need this essential time playing to forget about school for a bit and enjoy exercising with friends, but standardized testing removes this. Why should we allow these new standards to completely change education for the worse? Classrooms should not be all about testing and many students enjoy other subject areas and look forward to attending those classes. Just because a class isn’t related to a standardized does not mean it should be looked over. These classes are important to the development of the student and their learning. Overall, standardized testing is sucking the oxygen out of the room for many students, making them feel trapped in the realm of testing.

In essence, the realm of standardized testing has drastically changed the landscape of education for the worse. These tests are extremely unreliable when it comes to measuring and evaluating student achievement. The goal of increased standards from the implementation of more testing has actually backfired upon education as standards are not improving. Most significantly, these large amounts of tests are taking away from key principles in the classroom and are consequently showing negative effects on the way students are learning and preparing for the future. Standardized testing is not the way America should be running the educational system as it is clearly hurting rather than helping students of today. “The way we learn to live our lives as adults, and not our test scores, is the true measure of our schooling” (Sadker, 2004, par.19). Mr. Sadker said it best, schooling is about preparation for what lies ahead, not constant testing and measurement. This system needs to see a change, and it needs to see it very soon.

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