Are Standardized Tests Necessary?

I’m young enough to remember sitting down to take standardized tests each year.  I’m also old enough to remember a time when we didn’t take standardized tests.  I became deeply invested in lobbying for educational reforms at a very young age.  My mom was elected to our local school board.  By middle school, I was helping to put together educational programs for gifted students.  This, in turn, allotted me plenty of opportunities to learn about our school systems — both past and present.  Over the years, I’ve watched the overall goal of our education system shift  dramatically — rapidly becoming a 12 year sentence for our children to survive, not thrive.   


As a student, I didn’t really have much of an opinion on standardized tests.  They were boring.  They were long.  Standardized tests usually meant half days and time for movies.  Our teachers always gave us Smarties because, apparently, this cheap candy was going to make us “smarties.”  I didn’t buy into that idea.  I thought it was pretty stupid.  I was never a fan of sweets so they usually sat on my desk for the duration of the test.  I can’t recall a single student in any of my classes requiring the full amount of time.  We usually finished way before the timer went off.  Yet, as per school policy, we were required to stay in our seats and sit in silence.  We weren’t allowed to take anything out.  Sit and Stare.  It was mandatory.  Some teachers let us take a nap during this time, others would insist that we keep our heads off of the desks.


 All in all, it was a pretty uneventful experience. Each year, however, we spent more days on standardized testing.  They added sections.  The sections became longer.  The tests became more boring.  We used to fantasize about the test creators — certainly, they had to put extra effort in to find such bland reading passages.  


Some years, I can recall not taking the standardized test, though research shows that I certainly should have.  I likely skirted these test sessions by being on vacation or taking a sick day — or two.  I might add that no teacher or administrator ever hunted me down in the days after to ensure I made up the test.  It simply wasn’t all that important.  These tests took up a few days of our year.  They drained us of our energy.  Yet, they weren’t that important.  We knew that.  The teachers told us so.  Each year, the teachers would tell us “Don’t stress.  These tests are meant to see how we[the teachers] are doing.  They don’t make a difference for you.”  I remember thinking that this whole process was, indeed, a big waste of my time.  Why do I need to take a test to see how you are doing?  Shouldn’t we make them[the teachers] take a test instead?  Nevertheless, I made it out of school alive.  These tests didn’t cause me any undue hardship or anxiety — It was just a few uneventful days of school, not so unlike many others. 


Fortunately, I suppose, I escaped the grasps of our school system before standardized tests became the definition of education.  Unfortunately, I definitely wasted countless days taking tests that weren’t used to make any decisions regarding my education.  These tests didn’t even really tell me how much I knew.  I just knew that I was “Advanced Proficient.”  Very descriptive.  


Today, I find that when I start to discuss student learning and achievements, students and parents automatically divert their focus to standardized testing.  At Open Houses, the most frequently asked question is, “How will this help my child’s test scores?”  When I receive phone calls, some of the most frequently asked questions I receive are, “Do you offer PARCC prep classes? SAT prep classes? ACT prep classes?”  “Can you recommend a test prep book?” No, on all accounts.  No.  I’m not saying this to be harsh.  I’m not trying to be such a useless educator.  I just really don’t know.  I don’t believe that test prep belongs in our education system.  I don’t believe that taking practice test after practice test or learning how to use “guess and check” methodologies is helping our students in any way.  Statistically, I might add, I’m right.  Each year, the school curriculum becomes more centered around these standardized tests.  Each year, student achievements are lower.  


Since I only offer classes on the weekend, most of my students are enrolled in either public or private school for their “full day” programming.  Each Spring, I find that more and more of the conversation around this time is centered on standardized testing.  Each year, I find that my students and parents are more and more stressed over standardized testing.  I almost find this laughable, in the scariest way.  My students are ALL performing in at least the 80th percentile or above in BOTH math and reading.  These are our “top track” students.  Why are they so stressed over tests designed for the 50th percentile?  


Standardized Testing = High Stakes Testing
Students are told that these tests, that they start taking at a young age, will affect their future — greatly.  Pressure starts from some very high levels — national policy pressures state policy which pressures district policy which pressures school administrators which trickles down to the teachers and then, subsequently, the students.  The goal of school is no longer to produce educated individuals. The current goals of school are to check off boxes, bide time for 12 years until a child reaches adulthood, and produce pretty statistics through standardized tests.  


Students aren’t exaggerating when they say “I don’t understand.”  
The current curriculum is highly centered on test prep.  A quick glance at a current day math textbook shows that about one-fourth of the textbook is dedicated to test prep — practice questions and “tips” on test taking strategies.  Students simply cannot be expected to complete an Algebra I exam without actually understanding the material.  


Students know that it’s a waste of time
While students are certainly hyper aware that  they must do well on these tests, they’re also aware that their school situation is unlikely to change.  If a child is struggling in school, they’ll still likely be struggling next year without outside intervention.  If a child is bored, then they’ll still be bored next year.  If a student tests Partially Proficient this year, statistically, they’ll still be there next year.  These tests aren’t used to make educational decisions and students know that.  

For the most part, schools administer these tests in mid to late may, meaning that the test results are guaranteed to make no difference for the current year.  It’s also too late for next year.  Classes have already been assigned and child study teams already made their recommendations.  Teachers don’t work during the summer months.  School resumes in the fall.  The sheer timing and protocol for standardized testing ensures that, even if they wanted to, it’d be tragically difficult to use these test results for anything.  


A right way to test: Why and When
It’s no secret that students on either extreme of the spectrum — remedial and gifted, endure more standardized testing than any other population.  The identification of a gifted student usually entails one or more tests.  If you’re interested in acceleration options, this process also involves tests.  If you’re applying to a program, this usually requires test results.  Each program and process requires a different test and, before you know it, it seems as if your child does nothing but take tests.  So, how do you decide if your child really needs to take this test?  Are some tests better than others?  

I strongly believe that we shouldn’t test kids for the sake of testing.  We should analyze the results and use those results to make decisions — decisions that otherwise could not have been made with the same accuracy, confidence, or consistency.  At HEROES, I accept students from varying schools and educational facilities.  I also recognize that my students likely have the ability to perform at a higher level.  If a student tests Advanced Proficient on a grade-level standardized test, I still do not know how far above that a student can achieve.  The ceiling is low.  They could, potentially, also test Advanced Proficient for the next grade level.  You’d never know.  


So, I use a test with a higher ceiling. All students in grades 2 – 11 take the same test, the NWEA MAP test.  It adapts.  As students answer questions correctly, the questions become more challenging.  As student answer questions incorrectly, the questions become “easier.”  This allows me to see what a student knows — and what they are ready to learn.  The reading section is only about 46 multiple choice questions.  The math section is about 52 multiple choice questions.  Students, on average, take about 1 hour per section.  The test is not timed.  When they finish the section, they may take a break or move on to the next section. It’s their choice.  I also remind students that they can’t get an A on this test.  They can’t “pass” this test.  They can’t get a perfect score.  I’m only trying to see what they know — and what they’re ready to learn to determine two things: (1) if my programs would be well suited for them and (2) which class will be “not too hard,” “not too easy,” but “just right” — Just like Goldilocks!  

I use this reading score.  Actively.  I use this reading score to recommend books to students that are “just right” — books that are at, or slightly above, their reading level.  This allows a student to continue to naturally develop their reading comprehension ability.  You can view more about my reading program here.  I also use this reading score to determine which language arts class they’re best suited for.  

I use this math score to determine which paper-pencil challenge exam to give them.  I find that multiple choice math tests aren’t a full-proof way to assess a student’s learning.  However, it does provide me with information to determine how the student compares to students taking this test at any grade level AND to approximate their math learning.  I use this to decide which paper-pencil math challenge exam to give them.  I have an eight year old child currently enrolled in my Algebra Test.  I wouldn’t want to give him a challenge exam for 3rd grade, only to find out he knows it all, and then move on to 3rd, 4th, 5th, and pre-algebra.  The NWEA MAP scores allow me to better gauge a starting point.  It also ensure that I don’t give a student a test that is far beyond their learning level.  

All in all, this process allows each student to be equally challenged in the classroom.  

What To Do
I realize that a complete organization overhaul, in which all schools use ability grouping, is unlikely.  It’s not feasible.  It’s controversial.  However, when you’re looking at optional tests for your child, consider the following:

  • Why do they need to take this test?  
  • How will this test change/benefit their life and/or educational experience? 

In the days approaching, and during, standardized testing, I also urge you to remind your students and children that the best thing they can do is to get a good night’s rest and to eat a good breakfast.  It’s one test.  It’s not the end of the world.  Our children should not be developing nervous ticks over one single test.  Our children should not suffer from insomnia, anxiety, and other mental health disorders because of tests.  Mostly, our students should not test.  If they don’t do well on the test, consider that, perhaps, they weren’t given the tools that they needed to succeed. 

So, Is Standardized Testing Necessary?
I believe that it is necessary to have some way to measure student learning.  I think that we can all agree that we want to know if our student is learning in school.  We send them to school 180 days per year, but are they learning what they need to know?  Often, students come to me as straight A students.  They’re enrolled in Algebra.  They’re earning A’s.  Yet, if I give them a paper-pencil math test, I can tell that they barely know how to add and subtract fractions.  I think that, although this is frightening, this is very important for parents and students to know.  Standardized testing CAN be a way to determine this.  However, as a society, we must put our focus back on student learning.  We must STOP “teaching to the test”.  Students should not take tests for the sake of testing.  Schools must focus on educating our children rather than performing well on standardized tests.  If we teach our students their basic skills — mathematics and language arts, then they will naturally have better outcomes.  School should be about learning and growing — developing understanding, comprehension, logic and reasoning skills.  

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