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Implications of System Wide Standardized Testing
With the mandate of NCLB's (No Child Left Behind) testing of all students, and the rapidly approaching 2013 deadline. System wide standardized testing (SWST) has become the de rigueur way to meet the demands imposed by the U.S. government. According to Parkison (2009), "Under NCLB, the state wide assessment system will be the primary means of determining whether schools and school districts are making adequate yearly progress(AYP) toward educating students to high standards" (p. 5). However, just because you have to do something, doesn't mean you like it. From my research, I have found that the majority of writers do not see SWST as being beneficial to the students or teachers in the U.S educational system.
In this paper I will briefly discuss what a standardized test and what it shows. Then I will look at the three main criticism of standardized testing. The first, deals with the test itself. What are the limitations of SWST? The second deals with the students, are SWST's truly assessing the students' abilities in the real world? Finally, we will examine how SWST affects how a
teacher teaches their curriculum.
What is a Standardized Test?
CAESL, the Center for the Assessment and Evaluation of Student Learning (n.d.), defines standardized tests, as being:
Any tests that are administered and scored in a pre-specified, standard manner. The same questions and/or tasks are required of each test-taker. The same information is provided to each test-taker immediately before and during the test. Each test-taker has the same amount of time allowed to take the test. Responses are scored in the same way. (CAESL Toolkit)
Standardized tests are usually used in large-scale settings in an attempt to evaluate the performance of students throughout whole schools, districts, states, and nations. For this reason, standardized tests are often also referred to as large-scale assessments. As Rivlin would say, "We want the biggest bang for our buck." (Rivlin,1971). These large scale assessments can be local, such as California's CASHEE, national, such as the SAT, or international, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
There are two major types of standardized tests. Achievement tests which are designed to measure students' specific knowledge and skills. Examples of these include the California Achievement Tests (CAT), Missouri Assessment Program (MAP), and Advanced Placement (AP) subject tests. Achievement tests are scored using a referenced based system. Scoring is based on comparing a student's score to that of other students. They are usually based on a standard score, a percentile score, and a grade equivalent score. These scores are referenced to a 50 percentile- ½ performed better, ½ performed worst system.
The other type of standardized test is the aptitude test. These tests are designed to predict how well students are likely to perform in another setting, like college). Examples include: Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). These tests are scored using a criterion based system. Scoring is based on how well the student has mastered the content of the test. These tests score a student's levels of proficiency.
The Three Main Criticisms of Standardized Testing
In doing my research for this paper, I found that there were three recurring themes that were mentioned repeatedly by a majority of the anti-SWST authors. One criticism was related to the mechanical limitations of the test itself. Another theme of criticism was scope of the test. Does it measure a student's real knowledge and critical thinking skills? Finally, I will examine the effects of the test on teachers and what they teach, are we teaching to the test?
In theory, standardized tests are not restricted to any particular assessment approach. They just need to be standard in their methodology. But in reality, standardized tests usually use easy-to-score and easy-to-administer kinds of items, such as multiple choice and short answer questions. The reason for this is the large volume of students to which these tests are administered to. One problem is that the costs involved in the production, administering, and scoring of these tests preclude the use of more complex and complicated forms of testing student work. The dependence on multiple-choice items limits the depth at which a test can probe for students' understanding and thinking. SWSTs will never show what our children need to acquire to be knowledgeable citizens in a culturally diverse, ever-changing world. Standardized testing results often create a narrowly taught curriculum because these test results are considered "high stakes" measurements (Cole, Hulley & Quarles, 2009). As we have seen the test itself is not just the only problem, but what it tests is also a major concern. What is the effect of these restrictions on large-scale assessment?
Standardized tests only test factual knowledge and no other aspects of learning. If so, are we truly assessing the students' abilities in the real world? These tests are centered upon memorization, and how well a student can remember facts. These tests do not measure a student's real knowledge and critical thinking skills. For each question, there is a single correct answer; no deviation is allowed or expected. Students are expected to recall previously encountered facts or to recall encountered facts from a list. People are not machines and life is not like a standardized test. Petress (2006) states that, "We cannot afford to teach our young that all questions/problems have answers; that only one answer resolves all questions; nor that answers come mainly from memorizing or recognizing "right answers" from a provided list." (p.81) SWSTs have creased to examine a student's real knowledge. Sitting silently taking tests has little relevance to what their future life. This is not what life after school is all about. What we teach students to learn in class has to have a bigger connection to life (not a narrower one) if we are to produce graduates capable to compete in an ever more competitive world. What teachers teach and how they teach is critical to a student's success.
The final theme that was mentioned in many of the papers I read was about the affect SWSTing had on teachers. Because teachers generally perceive assessments as an externally motivated and bureaucratic process, they regard it as something that steals time they want to devote to students. (Banta & Blaich, 2001) There is a large concern with effects of testing on what is being taught. Some believe that overemphasis on testing leads to "teaching to the test." Teachers spend more time preparing students to take tests, rather that providing curriculum that responses to a student's interests and needs. This makes the actual curriculum narrow and shallow. The curriculum becomes standardized. Mora states that (2011), The shift in curricular focus towards test preparation has negative implicationsâ€¦and that the effect of high stakes preparation on middle school students is boredom.(p.1) Tests also disrupt the school year, and significantly reduce time spent learning. It is not just the time spent preparing for the test, but actual testing itself that occupies an alarming amount of time. The sheer amount of mandatory assessment these days overwhelms the teacher's ability to teach critical thinking skills an real world applications.
With all these negatives can System Wide Standardized Testing work?
There are those that are trying to fix it. Many see such tests as a necessary part of standards-based reform and support their being putting into practice. Testing can be valuable when used to guide students. It is a widely held belief by the backers of SWST, that student improvement is inhibited by the lack of high quality information about the experiences and conditions that help students learn. They see technology as being the key to change. It makes performing assessments faster and more effective. School districts and other educational facilities can then use databases to store, analyze, and gauge a student's progress. Moreover, there is also a growing use of customized assessment applications, such as Everyday Math, Open Court, Orchard and Webquest to personalize curriculum.
However, with rapidly approaching 2013 deadline for NCLB. It does not look like SWST will be able to deliver the NCLB mandate of all students achieving at certain mandated levels. The limitations of the actual form of the SWST itself, maybe it's on undoing. Because of it large -scale, testing is limited to multiple choice and short answer questions. This limits the range and scope that the tests can assess. Moreover, it leads to memorization not actual learning. The tests become detached from the reality of real life. We are no longer teaching the students how to survive in life, we are teaching them to become test takers. The SWSTs become entities in and of themselves, and they effect education and educators. Teaching our students is no longer the goal, test taking is. Learning gets pushed aside and "the Score" becomes the priority. As the saying goes, the servant becomes the master. They say that this is just a cycle. If so, when will the madness end?