School Beat: Why I Hate Standardized Testing

by Lisa Schiff on May 3, 2007

April is standardized testing month in the San Francisco Unified School District. For the second week in a row, kids of all ages are sitting down to sheets of multiple-choice questions, armed with newly sharpened pencils for battling sets of fill-in-the-bubble options. This is hardly the image we all have of students guided by creative teachers as they tackle challenging, engaging studies.

The promise of standardized testing is that the results will tell us–for individual students, groups of students disaggregated by socio-economic factors, schools and districts–how well our kids have mastered the curriculum standards established for their respective grade levels. Lawmakers have been so lured by that promise that for the most part, standardized tests are now the only measure of achievement levels that are officially recognized.

But that approach leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, such tests are only one way to evaluate student success. It’s been long-recognized that multiple points of evaluation are required to assess social phenomena with assurance, and educational outcomes are no exception.

An example of the brittleness of our current assessment strategy came recently from the parent of a child at my daughters’ school. Practice tests were sent out over the ten weeks preceding the real test. In one of the first of these, the student was given the dimensions of a pen used to contain some ducks and was asked to find the perimeter. The child, an animal lover with sufficient mastery of the required math to find the answer, was completely distracted by the fact that the height of the pen was too short to keep the ducks in no matter how big or small the perimeter was. This child had zeroed in on the most important, though unintended, piece of the scenario, showing a fantastic critical approach to a problem that could never be captured by our state assessment tools.

Standardized tests can only effectively measure those things which can be well-structured in multiple-choice question format. The rich curriculum guidelines of our state push students far beyond this. We need and deserve to know more completely how successfully our schools are able to teach that material. A variety of assessments are necessary to accomplish this, but there is little movement by high level administrators and lawmakers to recognize this necessity and officially sanction the use of such tools.

Other people, however, are pushing for the inclusion of such evaluation methods. The Coalition for Essential Schools (CES) has declared May to be “Exhibition Month” and is showcasing example exhibitions to highlight one of the alternative, rigorous approaches to evaluating student work. (http://www.ceschangelab.org/cs/clpub/view/cl_cat/29).
An interesting video of a group exhibition is available for viewing, demonstrating the amount of planning, research, analysis, writing and presentation effort that had to be undertaken by the students, along with the work of negotiating group project dynamics. One of the most salient comments made in a post-exhibition teacher interview was that this assessment approach helped students appreciate that “it’s worth doing something hard and something big.”

Appreciating the rewards of challenging intellectual labor should be one of the great lessons of education. Any assessment that is geared towards developing that appreciation has a lot more going for it than one that prioritizes recall and test-taking skills. Descriptions and examples of other evaluation methods, often referred to as “authentic assessments,” can be found on the CES site http://www.ceschangelab.org/cs/clpub/view/cl_cat/29.

The use of “authentic assessments” does not necessarily eliminate the use of standardized tests. Each of these methods is appropriate for assessing different types of skills and all of them can be combined to provide a richer view of the entire student, school and or district and each can point to different strengths and weaknesses.

However, any assessment has to be well-crafted in order for meaningful results to be derived. This question of quality, or rather the lack of it, is yet another reason why so many are challenging the use of the current set of standardized tests.

At present, educational materials are a lucrative business dominated by big corporations. Classroom materials and their associated tests are now mass manufactured commodities. Checking for quality is a cost that seems to have been set aside in the pursuit of higher profits. Kids are taking practice and real tests that have ambiguous questions and just plain wrong answers. What, for instance, is the right answer to this question from one of this year’s third grade practice tests:
“Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion
9. Which of these is a fact?
A. .Uncle Harold is fun to be with.
B. Ted is silly to be afraid of horses.
C. Darlene should learn how to swim.
D. Mary will enjoy doing the things that Uncle Harold has planned.”

Of course, there is no right answer, but the test makers inexplicably think that “D” expresses a fact. This kind of error is harmful and unacceptable. If we aim to hold our students to high standards, the tools we use to measure their achievement should be under equal scrutiny.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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