Education

Student taking a test

How Effective Are Standardized Tests in Measuring Success?

Standardized tests are ubiquitous throughout education, starting in the early years of grade school and middle school (often state-based), continuing through high school with the ACT and SAT, and even through graduate school with tests like the GRE, LSAT or MCAT. They are a central feature in our educational system, but are standardized tests an effective measure of student ability, and do they accurately serve the purposes for which they are intended? Let’s consider pros and cons of standardized testing.

Pros of Standardized Tests

Effective comparison tool

Standardized tests are highly valued for their ability to provide a common metric for comparative evaluations.  Because they are created and graded by independent organizations, it is possible to compare results from across a region or nation via a common assessment vehicle.  This can allow high-performing students to stand out amongst their peers and assist them with scholarship and school applications.  For schools, it can help them assess their own effectiveness at student preparation.

Valuable taxpayer information

Public schools rely on public funds, and taxpayers have a right to know as much information as possible about the responsible use of their tax support by local school districts.  When schools and districts can report on their aggregate test scores averages, it helps local taxpayers see the benefit of their financial support, or, conversely, it helps them to hold underperforming schools and districts accountable for their results. Standardized tests certainly seem effective in this area.

Core subject prioritization

With a consistent emphasis on the fundamentals of reading and mathematics, students (and teachers) place their focus on the core skills that provide the foundation for learning.  The emphasis on reading techniques and vocabulary building help students improve their writing and oral communication skills.  Focusing on mathematical concepts lays the groundwork for additional studies in science and technology.

Motivation

High-stakes standardized test can have a significant impact on student motivation.  Knowing that an important test is on the horizon can increase a student’s focus and promote more persistent and effective studying.  This can hold true from elementary education through high school, where preparing for the SAT and/or ACT is common place, and even into post-graduate work where GREs, LSATs, MCATs and the like can be key to starting professional studies.

Cons of Standardized Tests

Teaching to the test

It is not unusual for standardized tests to assume an outsized role in the evaluation of teachers, schools or districts.  When they become a primary method of evaluation that is less about individual student success and more about institutional effectiveness, a culture of “teaching to the test” can develop.  In this type of culture, the learning process takes a backseat to the test results. 

Now someone could reasonably assert that if test results are high, then the learning process must be working.  But in an environment where teachers are dedicating all of the available instruction time to material on the test, they are missing out on opportunities to be responsive to students’ interests and innovative in their methods. 

In a more flexible environment, a teacher can make note of a collective interest from the class in a particular topic and shift into a deeper dive of the material.  Because an exploration of depth is a tradeoff with breadth, teachers could fear that a test topic might not get covered, and the additional knowledge gained by students won’t be reflected in test results.

Teachers are also less likely to try new, innovative teaching methods.  When teachers are evaluated based on test scores, anything that could lead to a drop in those scores – like a trying a new idea that may not immediately work – can seem like too great a risk.  When evaluation prioritizes elements like student engagement and innovation over test scores, teachers are supported in efforts to change and grow.

Poor measure of student ability

The nature of standardized testing typically involves a reliance on multiple choice testing and does not provide a holistic look at a student’s abilities.  A student could be a poor test taker for any number of reasons: anxiety, illness on test day, or cultural biases (see below).  On the other hand, that same student might be highly creative, particularly adept at problem-solving, or skilled at interpreting literature.  There are any number of more complex, more valuable, indicators of ability that cannot be captured by a standardized test, and there is a very real danger that a poor test score can damage a student’s confidence and hurt their educational mindset. If standardized tests aren’t effective at measuring ability, that is a big downside.

Lack of cultural inclusiveness

Cultural biases in standardized testing is not a new concept.  They speak to the inherent problem of creating a homogenous test that cannot possibly be inclusive of the cultural backgrounds and experiences of the varied students who will take the test.  The biases can include race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, and geographic status, along with many more.

Some organizations have made efforts to reduce bias in their tests, with the redesign of the SAT in 2016 as a recent example.  However, the problem still persists, and it is evident in the efforts of CollegeBoard (the group behind SAT and Advanced Placement tests) to introduce what has been called an “Adversity Score.”

The “Adversity Score” is a qualifier that goes along with test scores so that reviewing institutions can consider a student’s score within the context of factors like neighborhood crime rates and average family income.  Officially referred to as “Landscape,” the efforts by CollegeBoard may be commendable, but the need to go to these lengths to qualify a standardized test score surely acknowledge efficacy problems within the test itself.

Conclusion

So, are standardized tests effective? These tests are effective as broad measures of ability, and they offer an efficient method of comparison. However, they are often overused as a method for evaluating teachers and school districts, and there are many studies that show standardized testing is subject to any number of biases that disproportionately impact underrepresented populations.

What have your experiences with standardized tests been like? Have you been involved in any alternative assessment methods that seem effective? Let us know in the comments.

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