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The Proper Use of Standardized Tests

It's hard to have a rational discussion about standardized tests because of the emotions surrounding the issue. But with Congress on the verge of revising No Child Left Behind, I'd like to present another side of the story ("Leaving Standardized Testing Behind," Time, Feb. 5).  

The basic question: Why is standardized testing necessary at all?  Why can't teachers determine how well they've taught just by the tests they themselves design?  The answer is that they can.  But when $79 billion is spent annually on K-12, taxpayers demand more details.  That's where the issue of standardized testing becomes highly contentious ("In Defense of Annual School Testing," The New York Times, Feb. 6).

Unlike a typical classroom test, a standardized test is administered, scored, and interpreted in a predetermined manner. (I'll confine my remarks to standardized achievement tests.)  It's the interpretation part that is poorly understood by non-educators.  A test is only as useful as the valid inferences drawn.  The standardized tests in the news compare scores of students with those posted by the norm group - a previous national sample of students of the same age or grade level (Classroom Assessment, Allyn and Bacon, 2002).  Why? The answer is that stakeholders invariably demand to know how "others" did on the same test.

Making these comparisons can indeed provide invaluable information  because they point up both strengths and weaknesses of students' learning and teachers' instruction. The trouble is that the results are not being used for that purpose alone.  They're being used for punitive purposes. It's this misuse - the high-stakes - that has most of the nation in an uproar ("The Test," The New York Times, Feb. 4).

Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, uses standardized tests strictly for diagnostic purposes, and never makes the results public, as I explained in a letter to the editor ("For a model on student testing, look to Finland," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 7).  As a result, teachers and students benefit because there is none of the intense anxiety that characterizes standardized testing here.

I wish the U.S. would follow Finland's lead in this case. From a pedagological point of view, it makes total sense.  But I doubt this will ever happen.  There is too much money on the line to abolish the present punitive strategy.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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