Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Time for a Test--on Testing

There has been quite a bit of buzz in the news and social media about the use of standardized tests. This position paper recently caught my attention....

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Take a seat, sharpen your pencils, and turn off all electronic devices. It’s time for a test—on testing.

            Are standardized tests:
a.       an accurate measure of whether teachers have educated their students,
b.       equalizers through their uniformity,
c.       ensuring that No Child is being Left Behind, or
d.       tests which improve students’ critical thinking before they enter the Real

      Actually, the answer is e. none of the above. Standardized tests stifle creativity and individuality, leaving students to trade original thought for perfectly filled bubble sheets. The number of tests children must take has rapidly multiplied—even as early as kindergarten—and thus, anxiety about them has done so as well. Yet they are still used in every state, despite being largely inaccurate. For these reasons, standardized tests in public school should end.
     First of all, the tests themselves are clearly fallible, with reports of mass errors appearing year after year. In the 2004-2005 school year in Hawaii, 98,000 tests had to be graded again when students received scores for “blank booklets.” A few years earlier in 2002, Minnesota denied diplomas to 8,000 students because of faulty test scores that made it appear they had failed. According to a 2012 study, the United States spends 1.7 billion dollars a year on standardized tests (Brookings Institute). That’s an exorbitant sum of money to be putting towards assessments that may not even be reliable. But perhaps the greatest cost of this mistake is measured not by money, but the number of students whose intelligence is based off these imprecise tests.
     Secondly, standardized tests have no room for any difference from the “normal” test-taker in data. Thomas Armstrong wrote that “There are a wide range of differences in the people who take standardized tests: They have different cultural backgrounds, different levels of proficiency in English, different learning and thinking styles…and yet the standardized test treats them as though they were all identical…” Students are forced to alter their natural thinking patterns to take a test; if they find they do poorly later, they are considered “unintelligent” despite the fact that they were working in a way completely unfamiliar to them. It can be concluded that the tests are not helpful towards those who think differently.

      Finally, standardized tests cause even the youngest student to experience damaging mental pressure. Seventy-five percent of students in New York alone are stressed by standardized tests (Klein). The anxiety can have dreadful effects—researchers have found that when faced with a test, elementary students in grades two through four show behaviors such as crying, throwing tantrums, and wetting themselves (Urdan). The Stanford-9, a California test, even comes with instructions on what to do with a booklet if a student vomits on it. It is obvious that testing causes unprecedented levels of anxiety for students to the point where their well-being is in jeopardy. It can be assumed that we have reached a point where the act of administering a test has become more important than students’ mental health.       

     However, defenders of standardized testing insist that without testing, those in authority would have no way of knowing whether students learning what they are supposed to learn. The fundamental problem with this argument is that standardized tests aren’t helping learning take place—if anything, they’re decreasing it. The pressure for teachers to “teach to the test” and only cover information which they know will appear leads to declines in higher learning (University of Maryland). In addition, fifty to eighty percent of year-to-year test scores are temporary and have nothing to do with long term changes in learning (Brookings Institute). This shows that the preparation for the tests cuts back on learning, and after students finally sit down and take it, the short-term information vanishes from their brains. Thus, standardized tests reduce the amount of actual learning that takes place in the classroom.
     In the end, behind every testing sheet and every hour spent in class reviewing lies one multiple-choice question: “Should we continue to use this system—yes or no?” There would be many quick to pencil in “yes,” but just as it is taught during test preparation, it is always important to go back and review the other possibilities. Do we want to spend millions of dollars on error-prone tests known for showing up blank at grading time? Do we approve of indirectly encouraging students to abandon the natural way they learn to conform to the pattern of a test? Do we find it necessary to cause second graders to vomit and older students to have panic attacks from anxiety? Perhaps there are some who would keep their answer, believing that all the negatives would somehow result in a greater good, but the correct ones—the ones who truly pass the test—are the ones who bubble in “no.”

Photo: sites.psu.edu