When I was a student I always dreaded taking standardized tests, which occurred more frequently than I would have liked. This was for two reasons.
The first reason was that for roughly 2-3 weeks before the test, the teacher would show us the best strategies for finding the correct answer and how we should structure our essays. The actual material that we were reading during the test didn’t matter and it was of no consequence if we understood it or not.
Secondly, I didn’t have a chance to be creative, even on the written part of the test. I’m going to talk more about this later, but I honestly think standardized tests do a disservice to creative-minded students because there are stringent rules you have to follow, even when writing an essay asking you for your opinion about something.
But what exactly IS standardized testing, you might ask? Well, it is a method to assess students objectively by having them all take the exact same test under the exact same conditions. In order to accomplish this, there are procedures in place that ensure fairness, such as setting a certain amount of time for the test. Questions are also carefully crafted to be “unbiased” to all students.
It is an important staple of the American education system and is used to determine many things like whether you can advance to the next grade, graduate, or even go to the college, university, or graduate school of your choice. They are even used by the military to allocate job assignments.
In this article, we will tackle exactly why standardized tests might not be the best way to determine a student’s knowledge, as well as other methods that teachers or homeschool parents can use to promote real learning.
Of course, there are always two sides to the story, so first we’re going to take a look at some potential benefits of standardized testing
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Are there ANY positives to this type of testing?
Advocates of standardized testing would say one of its main benefits is that they are “objective and fair.” Results are not affected by the town the student lives in or the school they attend. Race, gender, and economic situations aren’t accounted for and all students theoretically take the same test under the same conditions.
It could also be a decent way to find areas of improvement in student performance or determine anything that needs to be taught or retaught in a classroom, especially if you see a large number of students struggling in one area.
This was one of the primary goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was a federal law enacted in 2001 that required all states to give standardized tests to all students in order to measure their proficiency in reading and math. If implemented the way it was originally intended, it could have exposed learning gaps in students and teachers would then provide a personalized plan for the student to improve.
Of course, NCLB was a massive failure and one big reason for this is because it had standardized testing at its core.
What are the main issues with standardized testing?
While there are many problems, we will cover what I believe to be the most detrimental for the students AND the teachers.
It Affects the Self-Confidence of the Student
Test anxiety is a real thing. We have all had to deal with it. Some handle it better than others but generally, when you take a regular test for a class, you plow through the anxiety and release a big sigh of relief when it’s all over.
However, standardized tests add a new layer to this anxiety. Some of them are tied to an important outcome, like whether you will be able to get a scholarship or attend a school of your choice. Not to mention the pressure you might receive from parents and/or teachers expecting you to do well. This can cause a student to give a less-than-adequate performance on the test. They could end up not doing well based on factors completely out of their control.
This is a stigma in our country that could be harmful to our students. Many believe tests like the SAT and ACT are signifiers of a student’s intelligence. This is not true of course, but many parents don’t know that (even some teachers don’t know).
Students can fall victim to this way of thinking. Not doing well on one of the previously mentioned tests might lead them to believe their intelligence is limited, and by extension, their future.
Teachers are pressured to “teach the test” instead of actually… teaching.
In many schools, students have become more of a numerical statistic rather than an actual person in regard to standardized testing. For example, during the times of NCLB, teachers’ salaries were tied to the results they produced. If students did not perform well, teachers could potentially lose out on a raise or even their job! They were forced to educate in a specific way in order to protect their livelihood rather than have the students actually learn something.
This way of teaching still pervades our education system today. When educators attempt to “teach the test”, their creativity and adaptability are limited. They will tend to focus on reading and math and pay less attention to subjects like art, music, history, or social studies.
Also, when teachers use this method, the students don’t need to know or understand the material. They only have to retain it until test day and once they’ve answered the last question they can promptly forget it.
This provides the wrong type of motivation to the student. They are not learning for learning’s sake, but merely to do well on the test. The student then develops a poor concept of what it means to learn, which they could potentially, and often do, take with them into adulthood.
This sentiment was shared by a homeschool teacher on her website, The Unlikely Homeschool. On the site, she talks about how she does not give tests to her students (outside of the annual ones required by her state). In a quote, she says:
In my homeschool, I don’t teach spelling words in order that my children can pass a test. I teach spelling skills so that they can each become good spellers. So, I don’t waste my time giving tests. A spelling “class” dedicated to a spelling test is just a wasted opportunity. I’d much rather spend that time teaching them to actually spell.
I agree with this and think that “teaching the test” cheats both the student and the teacher. If a student doesn’t do well on the test, it’s not because they were completely incapable of learning the material. It also doesn’t mean that the teacher was bad at their job, even though some administrators might think so.
Students with the best and worst scores are often ignored
Earlier, I mentioned that during NCLB, a teacher’s livelihood was tied to the results they produced from testing. Because it was in their best interest to get as many students to pass as possible, a number of teachers had to make a calculated decision on who they thought they could help and those they couldn’t.
Say your scores were excellent already. In many instances, the teacher would just ignore you because they knew that you were going to do well anyway. An article from Vittana.org states that if administrators felt the student was guaranteed to do well on the standardized test, teachers would pass the responsibility of educating the student to the parents. The parents would be given assignments, homework, and instructions so that the teacher could be free to help other students.
It was even worse if you had the lowest scores. At least with the highest-scoring students, there was potential for them to learn something, even if it was from the parents. Low-score students became completely oblivious to many educators and were basically abandoned. All attention was focused on the larger majority of students that teachers still felt had potential. That’s the long and short of it.
Ways to Promote ACTUAL Learning
Now that we have covered the main reasons I feel standardized testing is not a good way to judge student success, what would I recommend? I’m glad you asked!
Students should work together and collaborate
Every good teacher knows that real learning does not happen in isolation. Again, part of the reason why NCLB failed was because a good number of students were ignored. The kids in the classroom have to feel like they are actually involved in the learning process, which is why they need to share ideas with their peers.
There are many things you can do to have your students collaborate together. Rather than being the only one to give feedback to students on their work, allow them opportunities to constructively critique each other. This will teach students how to share their opinion in an objective, meaningful way and would allow them to converse with someone that might think differently. They could also participate in group presentations, or you could segment time at the end of class for small group discussions about the day’s lesson.
Make active learning part of your curriculum
In a previous article, we mentioned hacking your student’s brain using active learning, which includes incorporating activities for them including debate, hands-on projects, and collaboration. It is also important for students to talk about what they have learned, relate it to past experiences, and then apply it to their daily lives.
This can be done by giving them a writing activity where they have to discuss real-life situations. If your students are young, you could have them write a Dear Teacher type of letter where they can talk about their favorite hobbies as well as describe family and friends. If you have students of various backgrounds, tell them to write about their community and culture and then present their work to everyone in the class.
Try differentiated instruction
While it is best done with small classes, differentiated instruction might be one of the most beneficial substitutes for actual testing. It means creating educational plans specifically tailored to the needs of a particular student. It recognizes the fact that all people have special abilities and talents which are unique to them, and teachers should therefore adapt their education styles to those specific needs.
An article from Indeed.com says that some of the best methods to use for differentiated instruction include providing various books for students who have different reading levels. You could also talk to them one-on-one after school in order to tackle their specific challenges. One of the best tactics for measuring a student’s progress without testing is a portfolio assessment, where the students collect all of their assignments from different subjects into a body of work that demonstrates what they’ve learned over time.
Fun fact: Most states require homeschooling families to provide a portfolio of student work at the end of the year to a certified evaluator because even the states who require the standardized testing of their public and private students understand that they’re not the only, or best way to evaluate actual learning.
While I will admit that standardized testing might have its place in certain situations, there are many other methods you can use to measure how much your student has learned without them.
As a final note, keep in mind that incorporating these techniques into your curriculum will be more challenging for the teacher, as it includes paying attention to the students’ needs instead of simply giving them a test and then going on your computer to cruise Reddit for an hour.
The good news is that everyone in your classroom will appreciate this new approach and you will definitely see a difference in the students’ motivation to learn!
If you liked this article, please also check out our article on alternative forms of education.
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