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Testing        < Previous        Next >


Testing: What Parents Need to Know


Q. The whole area of testing has gotten so complicated lately. What are the key issues, and what should parents think about, in shepherding children through the testing maze today?


In the Good Old Days, there were just a few kinds of tests in school. Your teacher mostly made up the questions. There were multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions. Once a year, or even once every several years, you took a commercially-prepared, nationally-standardized test such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or the Stanford-9.


How that has changed. Today, students take an estimated 400 million standardized tests each year. Big companies such as the Educational Testing Service, Harcourt General Incorporated, National Computer Systems Inc., CTB/McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin combine for hundreds of millions of dollars of standardized test sales each year.


The humble little tests your teacher prepared in yesteryear got a fancy new name a few years ago: "criterion-referenced." That's because the teacher set up the "criteria" for what would be tested, by writing the test questions based on the subject matter that he or she knew had been presented. If you paid attention in class and did your homework, you could count on a decent test score.


In contrast, the standardized tests were "norm-referenced" because the testing company devised the questions from a more diverse base of information. Instead of measuring how well students in a particular class grasped a particular set of lessons, standardized tests measure the knowledge of a wide range of students. Even if you goof off a lot in school, if you have a decent IQ, well-educated parents and try just a little, you will probably do decently whether or not you had a great teacher that year, simply because with those advantages, you were ahead of the curve of the overall U.S. student population.


Then came the influence of educational psychology. Ed psych is all about numbers, measuring, testing, scoring, charting, evaluating, re-testing, re-scoring, etc. The more ed psych was applied to education, the more tests schools started giving.


Today, the tests are a combination of criterion-referenced and norm-referenced, because our nation's schools have switched to standards-based education, and share the same standards in the same curriculum, which is to be measured, more or less, by the same assessments.


tTeachers have taken more of a minor role in testing, giving a lot of little tests on a continuous quality improvement basis. The main emphasis, because of the federal education legislation No Child Left Behind, has shifted to the statewide tests. They are criterion-referenced, aligned with the state learning standards. Cut scores (who "passes" and who "fails") are changed from year to year, so passing rates can differ. In some areas, the majority of certain student groups, such as low-income students, fail these tests, which is of great concern to policymakers.


Many of these new standardized tests are "high stakes," because if a student fails, he or she can't go on to the next grade, or can't graduate from high school, even if the teachers have given him or her passing grades. Or, in some cases, high test scores can result in bonus payments from the government to the school . . . or a state takeover and loss of educator jobs if the worst happens and the kids do poorly.


That's been controversial. Some people think it's terrible and tyrannical, because constant testing is boring for kids and they tend to tune out learning. They say this heightened emphasis on standardized testing is narrowing the curriculum so that teachers are "teaching to the test" instead of freely teaching what they think and know is important for their particular group of students. So, they say, the kids get shorted on writing, speaking, problem-solving and the literary study and appreciation of real, quality books instead of the "decoding" of short paragraphs for comprehension. They contend that the government's focus on test scores is a way of controlling schools and forcing them to use systematic, pre-programmed instruction designed to bring students to the level of minimum competence, but not really above that low standard. Plus, the system is just asking for teachers to cheat and for students to stress out because of the pressure associated with the stakes involved.


On the other hand, studies of some of the nation's most aggressive high-stakes testing programs, such as Florida's "A+ Accountability Program," showed a high correlation between test scores on the high-stakes statewide test, and test scores from a low-stakes (no repercussions to the school system) tests such as the Stanford-9.That showed that Florida teachers were NOT "teaching to the test" just to get artificially high test scores. Proponents contend that we have to measure student proficiency in an objective way, not just by the teachers' own evaluations, because naturally, there will be pressure on teachers to say the kids are doing better than maybe they really are, to make themselves and their district look good. They also point out that test scores are strongly correlated to success in later life, including income levels. If low-income and minority students test poorly, that shows that they are lacking in basic, measurable academic skills. Thus, standardized tests are a good tool for revealing flaws in schooling that can be corrected.


The main thing to know is this:


Tests are not all good . . . but they're certainly not all bad.


Standardized testing only measures PART of what schools should be doing. They are designed only to measure those things that can be easily scored right or wrong, and measure or count. The tests are not the schools' product, but they are part of it. The more successful a school's teachers can be in helping the students achieve success on the standardized test, the more free they will be to put their energy and time into the OTHER activities that they really want to do. That probably will include their own tests that they devise.


Good districts have always given at least some of their students nationally-standardized tests regularly, just as an accountability measure, to see how their students were doing compared to other students, similarly-situated, around the country. As long as they're effectively implemented and the data from them is put to good use, they can be an important tool in the educational arsenal.


Homework: There's a good synopsis about standardized testing, which is promoted by national expert Richard Phelps in the Fall 2006 issue of the journal educational HORIZONS on For the opposing point of view, against high-stakes standardized tests, see the National Center for Fair and Open Testing,


By Susan Darst Williams Testing 01 2008


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