High Stakes Standardized Tests I

Evaluating education and teachers fairly, clearly and honestly is a complex, difficult, expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Until now, we have mostly sought relatively inexpensive, easy and politically expedient solutions such as standardized testing. As a result, “we test students in the United States more than any other nation, in the mistaken belief that testing produces greater learning” whereas top performing nations such as Finland and Korea only formally test students once, and that is to inform college admissions (Darling-Hammond, 2011). We want to use these tests and all the accumulating data that is falsely touted as objective and scientific to evaluate all aspects of education, teaching and teacher education. It sounds good, but it is not true and is not right. A comprehensive report by the National Research Council (1999) cited a “strong need for better evidence on the intended benefits and unintended negative consequences of using high-stakes tests to make decisions about individuals” (p. 8).

Some suggest that such proposals for increased standardized high stakes tests have as part of their agenda the degrading and eventual dismantling public education. First, they create the impression that schools are failing by raising the bar on these tests until most students do not pass, and then use this as evidence that our schools are not doing their job. They further connect the school’s failure to get students to perform at the prescribed reading or mathematics level as the basis of our problems in society. It can become a Catch-22. They blame schools and teachers for failing to meet artificial and arbitrary standards, and, if students do well on the tests, then the tests are too easy.

Some reformers are suggesting using standardized test scores of the students for as much 50% of the teacher’s performance evaluation. Leading education researchers consider this practice unwise based on the evidence (Baker, et al., 2010, p. 2). Several problems with this approach include the lack of validity and reliability of these tests as fair and accurate measures of student learning, let alone the more nuanced variables of teaching and learning. Other problems that have resulted from standardized testing include the narrowing of the curriculum as teachers are first encouraged, then mandated to teach to the test to meet imposed quotas or benchmarks. As mentioned elsewhere in this paper, achievement in school is influenced by a host of factors outside the control of schools and teachers. Test scores are even more unsound, error-prone and illogical to be used to evaluate teachers or teacher education programs (Darling-Hammond, 2011, Ewing, 2011).

As these tests are normally made up of machine scored multiple-choice questions in reading and mathematics, only the lower level factual knowledge and limited skills in these two subjects are tested.  The other subjects and aspects of school and the higher-level skills not easily scored get neglected. These tests do not begin to measure the far more important and significant learning that goes on in schools related to dispositions, attitudes, life skills and higher order thinking. Beyond limited language and math skills, they also do not address the significant issues raised by John Dewey in 1897: “Examinations are of use only so far as they test the child’s fitness for social life and reveal the place in which he can be of most service and where he can receive the most help.” Why are we not developing examinations for these important issues?


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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