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Examining Standardized Testing

Many people who support standardized testing have good intentions: they would like an objective way to evaluate how well schools are serving their students. They would also like to use the results to help figure out which schools need help. They have an admirable central goal – to ensure that all students are learning. It might seem that standardized tests are objective measures of how much students are learning, because they have only right or wrong answers. But this is not really the case. Multiple-choice questions with right or wrong answers cannot tell anything about students’ thought process. They cannot reveal whether or not students can justify their answers or even understand the question. They cannot measure real, deep, critical thinking. They also cannot measure how well students can collaborate with others. Quite simply, standardized tests tell us nothing about whether or not real learning is occurring.

When a school sees an improvement in test scores, is it because the school actually improved, or because it became better at preparing its students for the tests? Did it “push out” students who it considered to be low-scoring?  All too often, increases in scores result from an increased focus on testing at the expense of learning. This increased focus on testing as a result of No Child Left Behind has been another way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots. Public schools that house poor students all across the country are finding that in order to reach their test score targets, they must cut back on certain programs (often music, art, languages, science, and social studies) and replace them with more English and math test prep. Many great teachers have left the profession after becoming so fed up with the focus on testing in schools. Teachers who stay are finding a loss of creativity and flexibility. What about the students? Students are the true victims of testing. Particularly during times leading up to testing. One junior said: “We have been preparing for the PSSAs for a good month. We haven’t done anything new. It’s been a waste of time. In English class, for example, we mostly just work on sample test questions.” Students, teachers, admisnistraotrs and state governments are under pressure to produce higher test scores. At each level, people are forced to put pressure on the people under them.  Students are at the bottom of the testing “food chain.” In schools that don’t meet testing goals, students often feel like failures. Still, many parents and community members are rightfully concerned that students are graduating from high school unable to read or write.  One of the basic reasons why, in my experience, is the very standardization that students are forced to adhere to.  We don’t have an educational process that taps into each student’s unique passions and uses them to accelerate the learning process.  We don’t have a system that connects learning to students’ real lives and enables them to improve their communities.  One hurdle in the way of changing the current system is the testing industry. There are a small number of large companies that benefit from our increased reliance on standardized tests: Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), the makers of most of our country’s standardized tests, and NCS Pearson, the leading test-scoring company. According to a PBS Frontline report, Pearson reported $202.4 million in sales in testing services in 2000. Unfortunately, these companies also have deep political ties. Many of their executives dominate education advisory boards, and have long been friends with prominent politicians. So what do we do to solve this problem?  1) Develop a vision of  a quality education, instead of having it defined for us by those seeking to profit off of our schools.  2) Push for transformational changes in our local school communities by joining students, parents, community, teachers, and administrators in developing schools that are connected to their surrounding communities, build on the strengths of students and engage students as leaders in their own educational process.  3) Build a national movement to shift away from testing to alternative assessments and ensuring opportunities to learn. 

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