By Nathaniel Epstein
There is something amiss in the world of education. Standardized tests were once only a small portion of academic life for American students. Now, they are almost as important to a child or adolescent’s school life as grades. The expansion of standardized testing has been done under the pretense of accountability and raising standards, but the reality has been far different. Result-hungry politicians in Washington and test-making corporations have created a system in which the tests are king and everything else must take a back seat or be forgotten altogether. The quest for higher scores has meant a shift away from activities and teaching methods that educational psychologists recommend and toward rote memorization and very specific test taking strategies. The main reasons why today’s regime of standardized testing must be changed are that: they do not test what is important in students, they take up a huge amount of time and resources, they are unfair to poor students, and drive good teachers from teaching or get them unfairly fired.
The American obsession with tests comes from our insatiable desire for data and statistics. We think that if we can just figure out enough about how well our kids are doing, we can improve their educational experience and raise their test scores. Tests used to be administered so that schools would know what their students had to work and improve on. Now raising test scores are seen as an end in themselves. Politicians look at test scores to validate their educational policies so that they can stand up in front of their constituents and talk about how the scores show how much they care about education and the children.
Multiple-choice tests (the format of most standardized tests) rely almost entirely on a student’s ability to see a question and simply recognize the already written out answer that might be correct. This is not a good way to test a person’s ability to think deeply and creatively.
The problem with these scores is that no one is asking what they really measure. More often than not, these tests are taught to a formula and only require memorization or very simplistic problem solving. While there is something to be said for the importance of knowing how to memorize formulas, it is far from the only thing that makes a good student or an intelligent adult. They totally neglect other very important skills and characteristics that make a good student or an intelligent adult. Studies show that communication skills, critical thinking, creative problem solving, motivation and the ability to work well in a team are as important as what they evaluate on standardized tests. Multiple-choice tests (the format of most standardized tests) rely almost entirely on a student’s ability to see a question and simply recognize the already written out answer that might be correct. This is not a good way to test a person’s ability to think deeply and creatively.
Research on this topic re-enforces this assertion. An MIT study conducted in 2013 indicated that there was a very low correlation between a student’s test score and the thinking ability of the student. By studying 1,400 students in the Boston public school system, the researchers found that the scores that the students received told them nothing about the student’s working memory capacity, and nothing about their ability to process information quickly or solve problems creatively. These gaps represent fatal flaws in the testing regime and are a great indication of why we should not take the tests so seriously. The only reason they are treated with such importance is because it is nearly impossible to quantify creative intelligence or memory capacity.
Due to the massive pressure put on schools to raise test scores, the tests now take up an enormous amount of time and resources. Schools literally live and die by these standardized tests. Schools are ranked and sorted by the scores that their students receive. If a school has chronically low scores, it is labeled as failing and eventually shut down. This creates a sort of arms race between schools. When all that matters in school are test scores, there is a huge pressure on the school to ignore other important parts of learning and focus on test prep. Reports from schools across the country show that even though tests only take around three days to administer, 25 percent of the school year is devoted to testing and test prep. This means that a student in the American public school system can spend up to 585 school days working on standardized testing by the time they graduate from high school.
The amount of time and resources spent on standardized tests are problematic for several reasons. First, it breeds a ‘teach to the test’ mentality that is toxic for our school system. It is bad to teach to the test because it often ignores the other types of intelligences that experts say make a well-rounded person. The tests encourage individual effort and discourage teamwork. Obviously, tests are given to individuals; however, devoting so much time to standardized tests means decreased time to develop these other skills. Studies show that these skills are just as important as what is learned on the standardized tests. We now run the risk of having less well-rounded students due to the extensive testing regime that exists in current school system.
Another problem with standardized testing is that it takes the power and responsibility of what to teach and how to teach out of the hands of educators and into the hands of well meaning but inexperienced policy makers. These policy makers and test corporations are not in the classroom and should not be the ones telling teachers what they should teach and how they should teach it. Teachers know the day-to-day struggle of trying to teach confused or uninterested students complex or new concepts. These years of experience should not be ignored in favor of the opinions of total novices.
Teachers used to have control over their curriculum and used to be able to tailor the lessons to what they thought was important and in a way they thought would interest the students. That time has, seemingly, passed. Teachers need to show that they can raise the scores on these tests or have their jobs terminated. Teachers are now evaluated for how their students do on these tests. Thirty states now put “objective measures of student achievement (test scores)” as paramount on their teacher evaluations. Eighteen states base their tenure track almost exclusively off test scores. President Obama’s education initiative Race to the Top brings this test blaming to a fever pitch by saying that it is federal policy to endorse punishing teachers over low-test scores. This is hardly fair and hugely regressive. It is incorrect to say that the teacher is the only, or even greatest determinant, to how a student does on a standardized test. Social scientists say that only 15 percent of a student’s test score can be attributed to the teacher. It is more likely, for reasons that will be explained later, that kids from worse areas of the country, in poorer schools, will do worse on these tests. This puts a teacher whose job is already difficult, due to the economic circumstances surrounding him, in a tougher position than before.
Surprisingly, most teachers became teachers because of their love for education and love for students, not so that they could do their best to raise rather arbitrary test scores. Teachers now are, essentially, given a checklist of topics that the kids need some familiarity with and a certain timeframe to do it in. Good teachers are crucial for a healthy, well functioning society. Under the current administration of never ending testing and scrutiny, teachers are beginning to leave their positions at alarmingly high rates. Seventy percent of teachers leave Washington D.C. public schools after just five years. This rate of turnover is extremely discouraging and should be taken very seriously. Most teachers are resigned to the fact that they will not make much money in their lives. To them, the relatively low pay is worth it just to be able to teach, but these tests are so unpleasant and disruptive that many no longer see teaching as a worthwhile vocation.
Another problem with today’s standardized tests are that they are unfair to low-income students. Even though they are supposed to be “standardized” and on an even playing field, well-off students have a huge leg up in the race for better scores. Wealthier students can afford the type of test-prep, tutoring and books that make the process much easier, and can drastically boost their results. Test prep is a rapidly growing industry in the United States and those who need it the most cannot afford it.
The current standardized testing policy also fails students because it does not address the heart of how poverty affects kids. Instead, low-income students are often pushed to the worst schools, under the worst circumstances, and then are punished for not thriving in the classroom. With recent reforms like President Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy and President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which both punish schools and teachers at underfunded schools for underperforming students, the problem is getting even worse. If a school did not perform up to expectation, they get shut down. This is mainly a political move to show that politicians are ‘tough’ on failing schools and seem to attribute academic difficulty to laziness and indifference. Trying to raise test scores is an extremely inadequate response to problems in schooling that arise because of poverty.
It seems that there is only one true been one beneficiary of the massive standardized testing movement: those involved in the testing industry. The testing industry has seemed to hit a sweet spot in the American marketplace. If the tests are not working and students are struggling, there are calls for more tests. If enough students do well on these tests to satisfy politicians and education critics, then more tests are ordered and the idea of standardized tests is then proven to work. They simply cannot lose. The same companies that make the tests also make prep books, with 60 percent of some test companies’ revenues coming from prep books. The once negligible testing market has blossomed into a $700 million a year industry, with about four companies controlling the market. It is important to remember when talking about testing that a small but powerful group in the education world stands to gain enormously by the administration of standardized tests.
A major overhaul in our school systems and major change in the way we think about education are desperately needed; the sooner, the better.