Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Arguments Against the Case for Standardized Testing in Education

Is the use of standardized tests improving education in America?  That is the latest question posed by, a website that takes controversial issues, lists claims and studies by proponents on each side, and describes the background and development of the topic in order to promote critical thinking and a more informed public on major social issues.

So on the standardized testing page of ProCon, they list 22 arguments in favor of testing, and 23 arguments against.  Of course, in the nature of most educational issues, that means that there are a lot of cases of "this study demonstrates X, this study demonstrates the opposite."  It brings to mind Andrew Lang's quip about using "...statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts - for support rather than for illumination."

And I know I'm biased, because I am a strong opponent of the current trend in education towards high-stakes testing in education (as regular readers to this blog already know).  But a lot of arguments on the PRO side of the standardized testing debate just make me crazy.

A prime example is the first sentence in the first pro-testing claim:
1. 93% of studies have found student testing, including the use of large-scale, standardized tests, to have a "positive effect" on student achievement.
What is left unsaid at the end of that sentence is "...student achievement, as measured by standardized tests." So, basically, it is telling us that using a lot of standardized tests improves students ability to do standardized tests.  As the young people today would say, DUH!  Similarly, a large-scale, standardized student basket-weaving test would result in greater student achievement in basket weaving.  That statement alone says nothing about the quality or value of students doing better on tests; it merely says that as students are forced to take more tests, they get better at taking tests.  That is also the gist of pro arguments #3, 5, 7, 15, 19, and 20.

Then there is another whole clump of arguments based on statistics that show that people support testing.  Thus, pro arguments #9, 10, 11, 12, 14, and 16 cite studies that show parents, teachers, college professors, and (here is my favorite) students support testing.  Students?  Really?  I've known a lot of preschoolers getting ready for kindergarten, and I've known them to be excited about the big yellow school bus, about having a lunchbox and a pencil case, about making new friends, about having a wonderful teacher, even about the things they will get to learn, like learning to read and write and add numbers and such.  But I've never known one who was looking forward to getting tested in school.

This supposed support by students is the best demonstration of what I think is the real reason behind all this alleged support, which in many cases is cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is the internal discomfort we feel when we are faced with two conflicting beliefs or experiences.  Psychological theory says that when we encounter cognitive dissonance, that either we change our actions, behaviors, or beliefs to eliminate the conflict, or find some way to rationalize it or explain it away.  A classic example is the Aesop Fable about the fox who, unable to reach some delicious-looking grapes hanging from a high tree branch, decides that they must be sour, so he doesn't really want them anyway.

In this case, particularly with students, I think it operates the opposite way.  For the most part, children don't get to choose whether or not they come to school and get tested.  They may not like it, but they trust us and believe we are doing what is in their best interest.  So they might say they support testing, because they are forced to do it anyway, and they want to believe it is for a good purpose.  And the ones that really can't deal with testing are gone; either, if they are lucky, they are being homeschooled or are in some other kind of alternative educational setting, or if they aren't, they have dropped out or flunked out.

The same thing is true of parents; since their children are forced to take the tests, parents want to believe it is for a good purpose.  And I think cognitive dissonance may be worst for the teachers, many of whom feel deeply from their professional training and experience that such high-stakes testing is not the best educational approach for their students.  It think it is a major contributor to the high levels of teacher stress and burnout that we are seeing today (although I don't have any statistics to back me up...but I do get that feedback from a lot of my friends who are teaching in the public schools).

Then there are a bunch of random pro arguments that just make me grind my teeth, like everyone's favorite "educational reformer," Michelle Rhee, who says it would impinge on the "civil rights" of  non-English speaking students to allow them to take tests in their native language, or the one that says we give doctors and airline pilots high-stake tests before allowing them to operate or fly a plane, so it must be OK to do that to (in the case of North Carolina) third graders.  Yeah, right....

But here is my BIGGEST issue with all the high-stake testing advocates.  Our differences are summed up in their pro argument #17:
Teacher-graded assessments are inadequate alternatives to standardized tests because they are subjectively scored and unreliable. Most teachers are not trained in testing and measurement, and research has shown many teachers "consider noncognitive outcomes, including student class participation, perceived effort, progress over the period of the course, and comportment," which are irrelevant to subject-matter mastery.
Since when did we reduce our children's education to nothing but subject-matter mastery?  That was not the goal of school in "the olden days," when all these reformers claim that education did such a better job.  During the great growth years of 1850-1950, the primary purpose of the schools was to teach children, many of whom were immigrants from all over the world, what it was to be a good American.   That meant teaching them reading and writing and math, of course, but it also meant teaching them the skills required to get a job and the skills required to participate in the American system.  That meant teaching them skills like responsibility and cooperation and tolerance and sometimes sacrifice.   It encouraged students to learn to work hard and to play fair, to appreciate what American democracy had to offer and to do their part to keep the American system strong.

Now, to a large extent, I think American school still teach these things.  But statements like the one above proclaim that active participation, hard work, demonstrated educational progress, and good behavior are "irrelevant."  And that makes me REALLY crazy.

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