Thursday, August 29, 2013

Standardized Tests

Oh yes, standardized tests. I took them every year in Texas growing up, and though I've always done well on them, I've always despised them. Here's why as explained as succinctly as it can be, which simply made my day. This is from the book Gross National Happiness by Arthur C. Brooks.

The purpose of administering them, at least originally, was to see whether schools were providing an adequate education to the majority of their students. When the students at a particular school perform poorly, on average, the school faces sanctionsthus the teachers have incentives to "teach to the test," focusing on preparing students to take the test instead of teaching the content the test is supposed to measure.

In essence, the purpose of standardized tests is completely undermined by the resulting responses from administrators and teachers to improve scores. So even though standardized tests are implemented with good intentions to improve education, they actually have the opposite effect.

I watched this happen in my own schools.

I remember my freshman year English class, we spent countless days taking practice exams for the TAKS test. I hated that class. Besides it being unproductive and time-wasting, that kind of "learning" took all the fun out of education. I knew I wasn't absorbing anything useful or enlightening in that class. It was dull and monotonous to everyone, including the teacher, and so all joy of learning was sucked out of us. Standardized tests are probably the very reason I detested English so much, however good I was at it. I only learned to love English in collegeafter standardized tests no longer loomed over my teachers' heads and I was free to learn and therefore free to love to learn. In fact, my passion for English blossomed in college, and I ended up graduating with a major in English language and a minor in editing; I currently work as an editor.

Perhaps someday the gross irony we call standarized testing will be ripped away from our public schools. Until then, I suppose we can only do our best to nurture a love of learning in our children and teach them that intelligence and success is not defined by a test score.


  1. A bad teacher can teach only to a test, or a bad administrator can pressure teachers to teach to the test, but at the end of the day testing isn't a bad thing.

    Teaching quality can only impact scores a certain amount; you can't often take a child in the 10th percentile, give them a great teacher, and watch them go to the 90th. Likewise, most kids in the 90th wouldn't drop more than 10% or so with a bad teacher, or with a teacher who didn't teach to the test at all. So, testing provides a way to mostly objectively measure academic aptitude across geography.

    Then there's the seperate idea that having a common test allows common control of what you want taught. If you wanted kids to have a broad overview of english lit, you could design a test that would require a good broad overview of english lit, and then if teachers tried to "teach to the test" they would in fact end up just being good teachers. Having tests that are poorly designed may be a bad thing for schools, but I don't think tests are. And if we're all in the habit of teaching to the test, all they would have to do is change the test and they could change all our bad teaching habits.

    Testing is just a way to centralize control, for better or worse, and also a way to measure across geography, which is almost certainly a good thing.

  2. In response to the above comment, first of all, I'm not sure why you chose to be "Anonymous." If you believe in your comment, why not put your name with it? Truthfully, I understand what you're saying, and to a certain extent, I agree. I'm certainly not against tests in general, and I believe it's good to have something with which to measure aptitude across geography and between schools. I don't know exactly how to do that, but it's certainly not with the standardized tests we have now.

    Moving on, if your first sentence is true, then all the teachers and administrators I've had are "bad." (And maybe administrators were, but I think most of the teachers were forced to do what they did.) They spent weeks or months preparing us for standardized tests. And by that I don't mean they'd teach us the concepts we needed to understand to do well on the test. By then, I already understood the concepts fully. I mean they would hand out practice tests and then we'd go through every question and answer one by one. I can't even express how bored I was with this nonsense. The truth is the kids who want to learn are well beyond capable of succeeding on a standardized test. They don't need this inane training.

    I guess I can only go with my own experience on this, and that is that standardized tests are bad news.

    No matter how much you want them to objectively measure academic performance, what they really do is teach teachers to as dispassionately as possible teach to a test. That's the simple truth. You can say that doesn't happen, but I watched it happen every single year. Classes were dumbed down to focus on practice questions for these easy tests. They could have been teaching us more, getting us involved in an exciting project, and fostering a love for education, but instead they would focus on the same things over and over and over trying to hammer test-taking skills into those few students who just didn't care.

    Perhaps the problem is with the tests themselves. Maybe they are too predictable. They're almost exactly the same every year. Maybe they need to be refreshed and renewed every year so teachers simply couldn't teach to it--so that it really was measuring knowledge rather than the ability to make educated guesses. (And on that note, just let me mention that I remember teachers actually spending class time with us teaching us how to make good guesses on these tests.) However, it's not doing what it's designed to do now--not at all. As I said before, good intentions don't always mean good results, and in the case of standardized testing, perhaps you do get some kind of *warped* measurement of a school's academic success, but only to the serious detriment of its students.