Standardized Testing Blues

Also known as “Standardized Testing Makes Life Difficult for Literally Everyone Blues.”

Allow yourself a moment of fancy: You’ve worked and worked and taught your children to the best of your ability and you’ve differentiated for each one’s needs individually and you’ve held regular parent-teacher conferences and now it is Time.

Well, it used to be like that.  Teachers would be given free rein to create curricula as they went along following the standards set up by their state before the widespread implementation of the Common Core Standards.  They would be free to assess students based on projects and assessments that they created or pulled from textbooks and other resources.  Each resource used was tailored and hand-picked to meet the needs of their students.  And at the end of the year was the terrible, no good, very bad Standardized Test.

Believe it or not, it was easier back then, when it was a little simpler and teachers had more control in their own classrooms.  Nowadays, however, there are standardized tests being administered at the beginning of the year before the kids have learned anything, standardized tests are given in the middle of the year before the kids have finished learning everything for their grade level, and the end of the year test is supposed to measure what the student has learned across the entire year.

Any teacher will tell you that assessments are paramount to student and teacher success.  Assessment results tell the teacher how their students are progressing and what subject areas need to be gone over again in more detail.  Pre-assessments are important to allow teachers to get a baseline for where their students are performing at the beginning of the year or the unit.  Mid-term assessments allow the teacher to assess what their students still don’t know and what they have mastered.  The last assessment, naturally, is meant to show how much the child has learned.

I am a believer in standardized testing.

Don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me yet.  The principles of standardized testing are sound, research-based, and essential to ensuring equal educational opportunities for all children.

Standardization of a test means that it’s the same for everyone across the board.

Everyone gets the same test with the same questions and the same correct answers.  When we have our standardized testing, those assessments have been reviewed and are supposed to be valid (it measures what it’s supposed to measure, i.e. the Common Core standards for Literacy) and reliable (it is consistently valid and provides consistent results).

However, there are two major problems with standardized testing as it is today:

No two teachers are going to teach the content exactly the same way, which makes creating a standardized test to match the instruction and assessments happening across the country difficult, if not impossible.  

For example, Mrs. Jackson teaches her students about cloud formation by using a Powerpoint presentation and lecture with engaging questions and activities to keep student focus.  Mr. Livingston teaches his students about cloud formation by showing a video with a list of questions students will write the answers to as the video progresses and has a discussion with them after the video ends.  Ms. Bartholomew teaches her students about cloud formation with an educational, interactive website with videos, quizzes, and activities for her students to complete.

Each of these teachers assesses their students in a different way as well.   Mrs. Jackson follows up on the Powerpoint by asking her students to create a science display that they would use to teach younger children about cloud formation.  Mr. Livingston gives his students a short-answer quiz asking them questions about what they have learned.  Mrs. Bartholomew asks her students to write an essay teaching a family member about cloud formation.

Most standardized tests today require students to answer multiple choice and short answer questions, and there may be a couple of longer answer questions, but not many.  In short, the standardized assessment that all students take is often different from the way that their work has been assessed before.  Most teachers counteract this with test preparation workbooks, but there are so many other things that they could be teaching their students instead of taking weeks to teach children how to take a standardized test.

No child is exactly the same and not every child will perform at grade level.  Standardized testing makes no allowances for that.  Children not on grade level are forced to take the same assessment as their on grade level peers, even though they are doomed to fail.  

Every child that walks through a teacher’s door has a different struggle.  Some children are fortunate and have very few problems aside from “I’m bored and I want to do something else.”  Most children, however, have a plethora of challenges that hinder their ability to focus on learning.

For example, I had a student named Missy* who came in every morning with a big smile on her face and was eager and willing to learn, but she was actually terribly frightened and couldn’t focus for very long on the lesson.  Someone shot at her house the night before and she confided in me before we moved on to the next lesson.  Missy lived in a rough neighborhood and there was a lot of violence and gang activity there.  Missy’s circumstances were frightening and difficult for anyone, let alone a child, to process.

Some of my students would come in hungry, angry, or exhausted because they couldn’t have breakfast, their parent was arrested, or they couldn’t sleep for fear of something terrible.  It is difficult to get these students on board with learning, not because they want to be stupid or because they don’t want to learn at all, but because the content doesn’t seem to be relevant to their real lives and sometimes misbehavior is their only way of expressing any control over their personal lives.

As such, many of my students came into my fifth-grade classroom reading on a first, second, or third-grade level.  Some of them had been struggling since first-grade and they were only falling further behind as the school year went on, because I was forced to teach these students fifth-grade level content, which they were not ready for.

So, how do we fix it?

Truth be told, there is no easy fix.  With a country of this size, it’s hard to get everyone to agree on anything and considering how polarized our political views are now, compromise seems far out of reach and compromise is exactly what we need to do anything to change even just part of the system.

There have been improvements to standardized testing recently.  In the academic year of 2014-2015, many states started using new standardized tests based on the Common Core.  These assessments included short answer and essay questions in addition to the multiple choice questions.  However, the jury is still out on whether these new assessments are any better than standardized testing as it was before the implementation of the Common Core.

Naturally, the new standardized tests based on the Common Core come with their own pros as well as cons.

Pros

  • The addition of short answer and essay questions allows students to express what they have learned in their own way.
  • The student can’t just go through the test by bubbling in random answers on a Scantron sheet.

Cons

  • It’s more expensive.  Scantron sheets can be scanned and scored by a machine which generates a neat little number to announce how well the student knows the content, but the same is not true for short answer questions or essay questions.  When you have these short answer and essay questions, you need real, live humans there to read the answers and decide if the answer is “correct,” “correct enough,” or “mainly wrong,” or “wrong.”
  • It’s harder to maintain a baseline of what qualifies as a correct answer and what does not.  George in Raleigh, North Carolina might mark a response as correct for a question, but Annie in Greensboro, North Carolina might mark a similar response as incorrect.  Both could be justified markings, depending on the content and the answers themselves.  Short answer questions aren’t as hard as an essay would be to score.  Even with a rubric for the essay questions, the scores generated by more than one person could vary widely based on personal interpretation of the answer and the rubric.

There are alternatives to standardized testing as it exists in our country now, but each one has its own pros and cons.  In 2015, Anna Kamenetz wrote an article for NPR listing a few standardized testing alternatives, such as student portfolios showcasing their best work, game-based assessments, and “stealth assessments” which record the answers that a student comes up with and stores them for people scoring the tests to determine the student’s mastery of the content.

Even so, none of these alternatives resolve the bigger problem: teachers are overworked and it is very difficult for them to differentiate their lessons and assessments for every single child, and as a result, children in our country are being left behind.  Then, they are forced to take assessments on levels that they are not performing at, which lowers their self-esteem and the constant failure only serves to make that child give up.

For more reading on standardized testing, check out some of the following links:

 

*names have been changed for privacy purposes

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