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Only two issues with Standardized Testing… – edu|FOCUS
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Only two issues with Standardized Testing…

A debate has raged on for decades about standardized testing. Ultimately I feel there are only two issues with standardized testing; the standards and the testing. edu|FOCUS is going to produce a series on the topic of standardized testing and its affects on achievement nation-wide. This article is the first in that series.

The “Standards”

One of the biggest issues with the standards used in standardized testing is that the testing takes a quantitative approach instead of a qualitative one. A child’s ability to remember facts, figures, and formulas is what’s being tested, not the depth to which they understand concepts or comprehend the material they’ve learned. By failing to test depth and comprehension, standardized tests miss the mark on assessing whether or not a student understands a concept well enough to use it in the real world. And forcing teachers to test the memorization standard removes their ability to encourage students to think critically and challenge assumptions.

Another issue that must be addressed is the standard of assumed equality. All students are not the same. They learn differently, live amongst different cultural and social realities, and process information differently. As such, standardized testing needs to assess children where they are – not where they should be, and utilize the different cultural realities that exist in our diverse country rather than ignore them. Rather than create tests for different communities, it is possible to use test answers to determine comprehension. As an example, imagine a question that required the student to match the most appropriate word with cup, and the choices included wall, table, coaster, and window. A culturally balanced test would accept both coaster and table as correct answers recognizing that certain children may have never been exposed to the use of coasters under cups, or even know what coasters are. The impact of assumed equality in standardized testing also affects children for whom English is their second learned language.

Lastly, the standard of single dimension assessment is an issue. Depth and comprehension aren’t part of the testing battery, meaning that students are assessed on their ability to select the most correct answer, not show their depth in a subject matter. Because of this, standardized tests often fail to provide constructive information that educators and parents can use to improve learning outcomes down the road. A good test should have layers of depth around a concept to determine a child’s mastery of that concept or subject. This can help guide educators to students who are in need of stronger support over those who are easily absorbing the knowledge being shared with them.

The “Testing”

I’ve already alluded to a major issue with the testing aspect of standardized testing. Educators are being evaluated on the performance of their students through standardized testing instead of standardized testing being leveraged to guide learning outcomes and assess the individualized needs of students. This is one of the biggest failures around standardized testing. Here you have the potential to gather a wealth of information that could easily improve the educational experience of students, and that data is simply being boiled down to a number, that provides a percentage increase or decrease on a stat sheet. Not only are the tests not using good standards to begin with, but the tests aren’t leveraging the kind of information that is usually derived from testing in the first place.

A major issue is the frequency of testing. Annual testing not only creates an exercise where students dread their educational experiences, but it also removes the ability to examine a child’s longer-range learning style. Testing should occur at transitional stages. 4th, 8th, and 12th grades would make more sense. The National Education Association seems to agree with this idea. Why? Because high stakes testing achieves nothing outside of stats. And testing students during transitional stages (elementary to middle, middle to high, high to college) is the best way to develop a strong data-set that can provide action items for individualized learning plans, and help educators customize education for students requiring more autonomy, or more assistance. Testing children in stages also avoids the reality that today’s test fit into, most tests are only looking at the current year’s information instead of understanding and assessing retention of what was learned in previous years.

Next, let’s address the way tests are conducted. Long sheets with little squares or circles that you have to fill in with your No.2 pencil. We’ve been conducting tests that way for decades, and a more modern approach would likely yield greater interest and decrease test tiredness, which affects the accuracy of tests. What is test tiredness? I remember as a kid always trailing off towards the end of tests. By the time you get to the last 60 or so questions, the whole thing starts to bore  you and you find yourself just filling in answers to get it over with. I’m sure I’m not alone in this – and with today’s technology, we have an opportunity to provide testing in a visual and interactive way that keeps children interested throughout the test. A state could leverage tablets, for example, with tests that are interactive, include sounds and actions for younger children, or allow older children to listen to music while testing because many kids multitask better than they focus on a single task these days; a product of our overstimulated culture.

Lastly, once we more efficiently leverage technology for standardized testing, the data can be used to provide much more context around a child’s performance. This data should be open individually to parents, and presented in a way that shows strengths, weaknesses, and provides parents with associated tool to improve outcomes. This is where partnership between parents and schools can be bolstered. Numbers on a sheet of paper in comparison to other students at the same grade is amorphous. Context around the results ca help provide insights and encourage discussion.

A simple solution to a problem that has become more complex.

Getting rid of standardized testing is not a good option. Keeping them the way they are today is not a good option either. Innovating our methods for delivery, management, and collection is key to success in assessment for generations to come.

  1. Recognize all kids aren’t the same – a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for education, and certainly won’t work for standardized testing.
  2. Assess depth – focus test questions on depth of comprehension using batteries of questions that get students to dive deeper into a subject or lesson with scoring that assesses overall strength and comprehension.
  3. Go deeper than right or wrong – use cultural context to guide answer possibilities to ensure a child’s understanding of a topic is proven regardless of the choice of language used to ask questions.
  4. Assess learning and comprehension using standardized tests, not educator effectiveness – end the practice of using standardized tests for high stakes purposes. Educators should be evaluated in a practical and real-world sense; their ability to engage students, inspire participation, invoke thought, and develop skills. Tests cannot evaluate those principles.
  5. Use data to improve outcomes – enable reporting and data collection methods that provide feedback to teachers and help individualize education. Testing should enable evolution of lesson plans and individualization of learning objectives for students who need more focus and attention.
  6. Test in stages and lose the annual testing – while annual tests are great for warehousing statistics, they wreak havoc on children and hurts their educational experience overall. Testing children in stages allows for deeper insights into the effectiveness of the education they received at that stage, and can prepare educators in the next stage.
  7. Make smart use of technology – loose the No.2 pencil test, and enable adaptive testing that is more fun and interactive while providing individualized data that is certain to aid in improving educational outcomes.
  8. Partner with parents – providing tools and information that is derived from standardized testing results.

So what do you think stakeholders? Do you agree or disagree and why? If you are a teacher, is this a system that makes more sense to you? Tell us what you think!

Endre Walls
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