Sunday, March 24, 2013

Is it really that bad?

Standardized testing... is it really that bad?
I have been asked through numerous social media outlets to sign petitions opposing standardized testing, but I can't determine whether they are really that bad. It is clear to me that the petitions focus on the negative aspects of standardized testing, but I am wondering what about the positive aspects?

In my current courses at the University, which are full of students who will be entering the work force as teachers in the next few months, the topic of standardized tests has come up. In my classes, people cringe when they hear about standardized tests. Tension fills the room and I wouldn't be surprised if saliva was shot to the floor over the mention of the words "Standardized Tests".

I have come to the realization that standardized tests and assessments are widely used in schools already in order to determine reading levels or student achievement levels.  We can understand our students' needs and possible exceptionalities with none other than the "dreaded" standardized test.

They exist in our schools and education system already, so is creating and administering more standardized tests really a bad thing?
I have looked at a few blogs, some about the myths of standardized test others opposing standardized tests, and read some reasons as to why standardized tests are good or bad.

My Background I grew up in a province where standardized tests were the norm. In Grades 3, 6, 9, and 12, I completed standardized tests that were produced and distributed by the province, based on the curriculum that is created and mandated by the province, and results were analyzed by the province.  The results were often used to rank schools, which may not be the best practice, but the results also made it apparent what areas the province needs to focus on, what parts of the curriculum may need to be re-vamped or what resources may need to be made accessible to all teachers to improve students' learning. The results also let classroom teachers, schools, and school districts know what areas they need more support in and what areas they may want to focus on.

While this information is valuable, the ranking of schools may result in problems in schools that are ranking below average, although a below average rating could also provide the school, students, and teachers to strive for a better ranking next time.  It all depends on how you look at it.

What I learned from Standardized tests-
  • I learned how to study and pick out the important points that were taught and discussed
  • I learned how to work through various types of questions- multiple "guess"/choice, true or false, short answer, long answer, fill in the blanks, you name it and I probably know a strategy or two on how to successfully answer it
  • I made meaningful connections to the content in order to remember it, what was taught needed to be valuable in order for students to succeed
  • I learned about test anxiety, how to cope with it and how to work with it
  • I learned what it would be like to write a final exam in university- everyone being herded into the gym, complete silence, and having a time limit in order to complete the test
  • I also learned what it feels like to write an exam that is worth a large percentage of my grade, again something else that prepared me for university 
  • I learned how to write paragraphs, essays, and written responses in order to please anonymous scorers/graders- I knew my test was going to be graded by some great teachers from around the province, so I made sure my answers showed not only that I knew the answer, but that I also composed it in a way to prove that I could write, I was also able to show my creativity in my answers and show how I can apply knowledge to different situations

I feel that my high school and previous standardized testing experiences prepared me for university, and I know there are many nay-sayers out there saying "What if you don't go to university, is this really beneficial?" Right now I would say yes, it teaches the importance of deadlines, personal motivation to complete a task, and working under pressure.

Negative experiences with standardized tests-
  • Competition- I have a twin sister, and when we got the results mailed out, I was always below her, I didn't perform poorly, but in my eyes, I was never as good as my sister, and this created an academic competition in our house
  • The stress- students break down, freak out, due to the stress, especially in Grade 12 when one standardized test is worth 50% of your final grade.  Your Grade 12 grades are used to get into any type of post-secondary schools
  • Test Anxiety- I know a lot of students who suffer from test anxiety, and this only appeared in their life once they were required to write a standardized test worth 50% of their grade
  • A one shot deal- Tests are only a snapshot on one day of all the information I learned, it was apparent what classes I was confident in and which ones I was not, but I found that the grades I had received on the in-class component and the grades on the standardized test parts were very similar, in fact, sometimes I performed better on the test than I had throughout the semester
I don't know anyone who failed a standardized test or who failed a course because of a standardized test.  I'm sure those people exist, but I am not aware of anyone who has. So my question is why are these tests considered so bad by so many people? Are our preconceived notions or ideas based on our neighbours to the south about standardized testing making us unable to see the possible benefits? Are our concerns over the negative impacts of standardized testing more important than any possible benefits?

I understand the financial concerns that the money and time used for creating, distributing, and grading these tests could go to more resources and improving schools or programs already in place, but then I got to thinking that the people at the Ministry of Education are the "government" that is making this decision.  From my understanding most of the people working with the Ministry of Education are/were teachers themselves.  Would these people "waste" money because they can?  Would they want teaching to become an assembly line , producing machines that can answer specific questions rather than critical thinkers? I highly doubt it.

So considering all of this, is standardized testing really that bad?


  1. "Competition- I have a twin sister, and when we got the results mailed out, I was always below her, I didn't perform poorly, but in my eyes, I was never as good as my sister, and this created an academic competition in our house"

    I knew it! Winning...
    Now that it's on the internet- it has to be true!
    Love you lots Kendra!

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful post. It's easy to jump on any bandwagon but I love the fact you ask great questions and are seeking further understanding.

    Here are my contentions against standardize testing.

    1. They're expensive. There is quite a cost to this and given the debate on their value, it seems the money might be invested better. In an age where we can do much richer kinds of assessments, this seems like a step backwards.
    2. They create undue stress and emphasis. As much as the province tries to downplay them, they create a great deal of stress for teachers and they put way more energy into prepping for these tests than you might expect. Even though it's a one time snap shot, it gets used more extensively than it should.
    3. In order to make something "standard" it tends to focus on lower level skills. Mass testing has to have easy scoring.

  3. Hi Kendra...

    I have to admit that I am really struggling with the direction that our province is taking when it comes to Standardized Testing- it is perhaps a costly endeavour for a 'snapshot in time' that will change the way we look at teaching and learning in our classrooms.

    I have spent much time in the last few years, most especially in my role as an instructional consultant, to better understand the research that is out there when it comes to assessment and learning. I wanted to pass along a blog post written by Grant Wiggins where he talks about what works in education- and shares renown educational researcher John Hattie's "Visible Learning' meta-analysis. It speaks to what has a proven effect of impacting learning in our classrooms- none of the strategies he talks about, and the list is exhaustive, would signal a need to shift to standardized testing.

    Learners that are critical thinkers, problem solvers, engaged, empowered and passionate about learning are qualities that can never be measured by a standardized test.

  4. Hi Kendra,

    I could list off all the research based evidence that says high-stakes yearly standardized testing is a terrible method of assessment, but alas I think we've all heard it before so I will simplify my argument to the question: Who should be benefiting from this assessment? If your answer is the policy makers, I have no argument against that. If you answer is students and schools- read on.

    Blanket standardized tests are used for informing the policy makers, not enhancing the education of students. The greater the distance becomes between those assessed and those creating the assessment, the less authentic it is. We already have numerous forms of assessment within the school system, that if trusted, could produce an excellent data set. For example: graduation rates, attendance, access to Student Support Services, departmentals, L.I.P.s, oh ya, and that little thing that teachers like to do in their spare time called REPORT CARDS.

    The issue isn't are standardized tests credible. The issue is that because the policy makers do not trust a teacher's professional opinion they are willing to spend millions of dollars to create their own, less authentic, test.

    My argument? Of course we need some type of standard to measure our students by. The new curriculum lends its self to this. However, since society loves competition and they always want to know how one student/school compares to another (btw of NO benefit to students) there are other options. Take those millions of dollars and put them into the divisions to have teachers develop standardized assessments that are administered by (dare I say it?) teachers. It's our job. It's what we're trained to do. If outside individuals think teachers are so very inept at one of their key duties, force us to be retrained with a masters- but then expect to pay us for such.

    I notice you have a psychology background and are going into education. I'll make the wild assumption that you will probably be looking at some form of Student Support Services either diversity or counselling. In both of those areas you will be asked to asses a student and provide a report or recommendation.

    My question to you is: after you have created said report, the principal of the school comes in and says thanks for your time and opinion, but I'm going to administer a different assessment of this kid. It will be multiple choice so that it's more cost effective. You know, stuff like have you tried stress management techniques? Yes/No. Do you have have family issues? Yes/No. Have you been abused? Yes/No. I'll be using the assessment I created to make policy and changes that affect you. Let's hope the kid fills it out honestly!

    Sure that test would collect some interesting data. But who does it benefit? The student? No, somethings cannot be tested for in such a prescribed fashion.

    I won't even get into the argument about how standard answers eliminate the possibility for creative solutions. Nor will I get into the argument about how good tests should allow for control of the variables (input being one of them), however standardized tests do not account for those variables.

    Teachers have the greatest locus of control regarding authentic assessments for students that truly benefit them. If we want authentic assessment teachers are the best trained individuals to do so. However, if you just want a number (authenticity is for the birds) then yes- a standardized test can definitely do that for you.