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First, a bit of history: Standardized tests began in the early 1900s as a way to determine intelligence. Those IQ tests were used to determine whether high school students should be on an academic track or a commercial track. Later they were be used by the military to determine who would be a good candidate for officer training. Standardized testing became more common place during the 1950s and ‘60s as a way to diagnose educational gaps and determine what remediation might be needed for individual students. Since the passage of NCLB, the focus of standardized tests has been to evaluate teachers, determine if schools should be “reconstituted” (administration or teachers transferred out) or even if a school should be turned into a charter school.
During my career in Philadelphia, I had the “privilege” of administering the following tests at one time or another: Stanford Achievement Test (SAT9), California Achievement Test (CAT), the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), the Terra Nova (which is now the CAT6), a Philadelphia criterion referenced test (CRT), and finally several versions of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). The Philadelphia CRT and the PSSA were the only two tests that I administered where teachers and students had any idea of what might be included on the test because they were originally written by teachers and specialists and based on standards that were being taught in the classroom. They were also geared toward a specific audience – the students in a specific city (CRT) and those in the state of Pennsylvania (PSSA).
Teachers have always tested their students. Pre-tests are used to determine gaps before teaching a new unit. Other tests are used to see if students understood the concepts taught. They also give insight into any areas where we may need to adjust or improve our instruction. We may also use projects and multi-concept activities as assessments. The one thing that these tests have in common is that both the student and teacher know what has been taught and might appear on a test. In addition, rarely does one teacher written test determine the entire fate of a student.
So what about standardized tests?
In the United States, individual states decide the curriculum that is to be taught in their schools. Teachers may very well teach exactly what the curriculum requires but will those concepts be on the nationally normed tests that are administered to their students? It is quite possible that concepts determined to be important by a test maker may not be part of a particular state’s curriculum. Does this mean that the students fail and the teacher is not competent?
How are standardized tests scored? I can tell you after administering such a wide variety of tests that there is a wide range of scoring formulas. I have given tests in which every unanswered question counted against the student. I have also given standardized math tests which required students to show the work but if they did not write the final answer to the question in a specific format they did not receive full credit for their response even if their math was perfect. Is this a fair evaluation of what a student has learned?
And now we have Common Core, a set of standards for what students should learn in each grade in all participating states. The standards themselves are not necessarily the problem, but the testing that is being developed certainly is. There are two separate groups writing tests to be used in specific states. One set of these tests is being developed by a textbook publisher. Concerns have arisen because some questions on the test are taken directly from textbooks published by the company. This means that if a district uses the texts from that company their students are likely to perform well on the test. But what does that say for districts that either can’t afford new texts or choose to use those from a different publisher?
Standardized tests are being touted as a way to be sure that teachers are effective. That is an ideal that might work if all schools received adequate funding, proper equipment for students to use, support for struggling students, and up to date textbooks. It might also work if no child lived in poverty. Under the current climate in so many of our schools, standardized testing is a failure for our students.
Do you have any standardized testing experiences that you would like to share? Please leave them in the comments.