Testing: What Parents Need to Know
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 www.pilambda.org/horizons/v85-1/V85-1.pdf
For the opposing point of view, against high-stakes standardized tests, see the
National Center for Fair and Open Testing, www.fairtest.org