Setting the Standard: In Defense of Standardized Testing in Today’s Society

Society today is fraught with conflict. With the current social landscape in the United States firmly polarized, one is not shocked to note that the realm of education is not exempt from discourse. Regardless of one’s profession or social sphere, it is more likely than not that the issue of standardized testing is brought up, whether due to direct personal impact on a family member or child or due to exposure on the news.

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The term, standardized testing refers to testing that is conducted in a consistent and controlled manner, with a rigid grading structure and administered according to a book of defined rules. Standardized tests are created based off of a central curriculum and rubric that all educational institutions are instructed to adhere to. This practice is meant to put all students on an equal playing field by ensuring each student is taught the same material in the same manner, then tested according to said information. Standardized testing has been and continues to be a topic for debate, especially based on whether the benefits outweigh the cons when it comes to its effect on children, teachers, and schools. While there are multiple stances on the issue, there are two main positions.

One side decries standardized testing and endorses a reduction in the number (if not outright elimination) of tests. The other supports standardized testing practice, citing that the standardized testing system should stay the way it is. This paper will support the pro-test position, while also addressing the main arguments against standardized testing. Testing will be evaluated as an equalizer and as a constructive method to evaluate the effectiveness of schools, as well as an indicator of material retention. Additionally, the merits of assessment must also be addressed, as well as the concept around teaching to the test. While standardized testing comes in many forms, dependent on the level of implementation and its source, this evaluation will focus on the concept of standardized testing itself rather than a specific test. Before one can begin to explain the benefits of standardized testing, one must first establish the importance of testing in general. For the purposes of this paper, testing or rather, assessment, refers to a tool to measure the amount and quality of course material retained. For this information to be considered quality, the student must be able to apply the information rather than simply regurgitate it back on to the page (memorization). That being the case, this also implies that where assessment is concerned, the tests administered must ask questions that would allow students being tested to apply their knowledge.

Assessment is a rather broad term and covers projects, teacher-student evaluations and reflections, and of course, the traditional tests and quizzes (Boss). However, since the focus of this analysis is standardized testing, the area of assessment to be examined are specifically tests and quizzes. Assessment is valuable mainly because it is a tool that can measure how well students are learning information, as well as illuminate the areas that need further review. According to the Review of Educational Research’s review of literature about the impact of classroom testing in 1988, formative testing was found to improve learning, both in the short and long term. Short-term effects included a heightened focus on classroom material, providing additional practice with the material, and helping students better understand further educational activities. Long-term effects included increased student motivation, reinforcing teaching goals, influencing the development of learning strategies, and even impacting students’ future course selection (qtd. in Earl, 43). A possible reason for these effects could be that through assessment, students can view their results and not only find where they can improve, but also what skills they excel in.

This information could then be used by teachers to advise them in possible career paths or course work. Without assessment, both teachers and students would be left in the dark as to where an individual stands in their understanding and thus, no progress would be possible for either the teacher or student (Holland 2001 qtd. in Phelps, 222). On the other hand, critics of assessment argue that the benefits of assessment (such as measurement of material mastery) do not outweigh the cons of the pressure it puts children and educators under. One critic goes so far as to claim that learning is not a competitive sport and should not be treated as such (Dixon). Others contend that the amount of time spent on assessment takes away from the learning process (Covaleskie, 1) and that test preparation efforts are an entirely separate affair from teaching children to write, read, or even think (Almagor, 2)”implying that test preparation is not a form of learning in and of itself. However, the problem with these comments is the assumption that the sole purpose and value in testing is the test score. These arguments do not take into account that assessment is more than a score. Rather, assessment is more of a process that informs classroom instruction and vice versa; instruction informs assessment (Paul, 2). Assessment, test preparation and quality of education are intimately intertwined. Formative assessment is essential to the learning process and teaching as a whole (Winch, 103); namely because of its many facets.

Assessment means attention to student motivation and engagement, making connections between subjects, measuring the progression of learning, and planning linkages between instruction and the tests themselves (Earl, 45). Further, through the synthesis of 250 studies about the link between learning and testing, the Assessment Reform Group (1999) and Black & William (1998) concluded that assessment is: a critical part of teacher’s perception of teaching, involves the sharing of learning goals between instructor and student, involves students in self-assessment and reflection, provides feedback for improvement, and ultimately, is reinforced by the idea that all students can improve (qtd. in Earl, 44). Testing is critically important to education because it gives educators and policy makers the opportunity to use the test results as a means to measure where students are and as a starting point for future lesson plans and methods to increase the quality of education in America as a whole. While the merits of testing are obvious, the issue with relying on traditional classroom assessment is the sheer variability of the material taught, as well as the teaching methods used. While general achievement levels provide some significant information, this information must be contextualized and the only way to do so is through thorough qualitative and quantitative analyses (Paul, 3). If assessment varied from teacher to teacher, school to school, state to state, then there would be no accurate way to generalize the results.

Further, there is also the influence of outside factors to consider, including but not limited to: amount of educational funding, priorities of each environment (state, county, school, etc.), physical and/or mental disabilities, and social stratification. Considering these factors, this makes standardization a priority. The true brilliance of testing, when standardized, is its use of an equalizer. Namely, this effect is possible because the term standardized testing does not just refer to the test itself, but also the process and central curriculum that comes alongside it. One argument against standardization is that tests administered by testing companies may be biased or the government could manipulate the test material to best benefit themselves instead of the population at large. However, this concern is contradictory because of education’s role at the center of society. States provide funding for schools and also have the responsibility under U.S. law (such as the U.S.A. Constitution) to regulate state-wide education (Covaleskie, 4), especially once the No Child Left Behind Act passed (Madaus et al., 22). Thus, states have both a practical and principle interest in educational quality. Practically, states have an interest in the economic well-being of the state’s citizens because it uses their tax dollars to fund the schools. As for principle, states can only regulate their schools by receiving information about how these schools are faring (Covaleskie, 4).

Further, there is an incentive to avoid governmental meddling due to the potential political and social backlash if the public learned of a scandal. Education is a central pillar of society and being so necessary, this means that it is essential that there is no discrimination in its implementation (Covaleskie, 3). On that note, the U.S. government has put policy in place to safeguard against discrimination. An example of these policies includes Section 504 of the Rehabilitative Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (L. Erlbaum Associates, 198), which were put in place to clearly define what disabilities are and ensure that they are accommodated. Therefore, testing companies offer alternatives for those with disabilities, such as providing extra time to take the test (or even no time limit) for those with learning disabilities; and also accommodate for students with other disadvantages, such as language barriers by providing translated versions of the test. Another main argument that opponents of standardization (and by extension, standardized testing) put forth is the question of the feasibility of truly standardized material. How can a single assessment package, curriculum, or test possibly be appropriate for all students regardless of gender, race, culture, socioeconomic status, or disability (Paul, 3)? However, test publishers and makers have been intentional in their efforts to address these concerns. There are procedures for creating standardized material and when developing a test, testing companies employ measures such as: having a representative sample of the entire population write and review the assessment materials, conducting pre-tests with a diverse sample, evaluating each test component for test bias, and consider norms (lets test user know percentage of the entire population that earned a certain score) (L. Erlbaum Associates, 193-194).

In addition to standardization efforts when making the tests, how to properly go about setting the standard scores was also evaluated. Student advocates have and continue to work with measurement specialists to institute appropriate student performance standards (e.g. Kane, 2001 & Zieky, 2001) (Firestone et al., 145). Interestingly enough, research has shown that the introduction of standards (i.e. quality control) have a positive effect on the average percent correct on a standardized test. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a group of 30 countries participated in the same standardized test (7th and 8th grade level TIMSS exam) and were ranked according to the number of system-wide quality control measures used (standards) and the average TIMSS score per country. Top performing countries used more quality control measures, with the largest amount (~18) also yielding the highest average percentage correct (~77%). The United States ranked approximately in the middle of the top and bottom performing countries, but closer to the bottom overall, with the lowest grade retention rate at 1.65 (Phelps, 221). If we are to take this data as indicative of a larger trend, the U.S.A. may benefit from additional standardization rather than less.

However, even with these standards in place, another strong objection to the testing regime is the claim that tests discriminate against minorities, on the basis that minorities (and poor rural whites) consistently score lower than middle class whites on standardized tests. However, it is a leap to claim that these results are definitive proof that the tests themselves are discriminatory. The tests are tools, tools specifically created with the intent to compensate for differences between students. If the interest is to create true educational equality, these tests have potential to illuminate the educational deprivation inflicted on the poor instead of sealing their fate; because, frankly, even without the tests, poor students would be denied educational equity. However, without standardized testing, there would be no hard proof of the discrepancies in educational quality (Covaleskie, 5). From the very wording itself, the phrase teaching to has a distinctly negative connotation and casts test preparation in the light of having an extremely narrow and simplistic scope.

The phrasing perpetuates the perception that standardized testing is inherently bad. In reality, as covered in the section The Merits of Assessment, test preparation is actually beneficial in overall learning and retention. Unfortunately, the general assumption is that any deviation from the traditional classroom teaching methods subtracts from instruction and when teachers employ the traditional teaching model, it is always better than preparing students for an external assessment or test (Stotsky, 7), even if not necessarily true. In both Cizek (2002) and Mehren’s (1988) review of empirical research literature, there was relatively sparse evidence to support the claims of negative consequences of classroom teachers’ test preparation (L. Erlbaum Associates, 166). Critics of standardized testing seem to assume that once high stakes are attached to assessments, teachers will abandon their professional duty to teach a balanced course to instead pursue measurement-focused instruction (L. Erlbaum Associates, 171); which seems to devalue both the teacher and the effort put into making a standardized and beneficial curriculum in the first place. Paired with the assumption that literature on the benefits of testing is nonexistent, there is an inherent bias against standardized testing from the start (L. Erlbaum Associates, 57-58). Phrasing aside, when on the topic of standardized testing, one common complaint is that testing lowers the quality of education and penalizes creativity. By forcing teachers to teach to the test, teachers are thus prevented from aiding students’ intellectual and emotional growth (Kohn 2002, qtd. in Covaleskie, 6).

Author Anya Kamenetz claims that the current focus on testing in America makes schools unpleasant places and by the 12th grade, students have taken an average of 133 various exams and 28% of class time is spent on test preparation and testing (Kamenetz, qtd. in Dixon). This standpoint points at the current testing regime as the source of reductionist teaching, but education critics like John Dewey were decrying the same issues before standardized testing even existed. It is not that standardized testing suddenly came along and ruined education, but rather, reductionist and by-rote teachingis just the way it’s always been done (Covaleskie, 6). To be fair, there simply is not enough time, much less in a school year for students to learn everything there is to know about the world”there is simply too much information! The issue is that teaching to the test is a paradox in and of itself: if teachers do not teach the material that will be on the test, they will be criticized. On the other hand, if teachers do simply teach the material that they are told will be on the test, then they will be criticized (Phelps 40). That does bring up the question, however. What is wrong with teaching to the test when the central principle and basis of education is creating a curriculum (or lesson plan), teaching it, and then testing retention?

Standardized testing is essentially a mechanism that gives the teacher their learning goals and basic lesson plan up front (while still allowing implementation of its contents to be the decision of the educator; as standardized tests do not dictate teaching method, but instead require mastery of specific knowledge (Phelps, 45)), with the only difference from normal teaching is that the standards come from an external source. The test itself does not control how educators or schools approach preparation for the exam, but rather identifies what information is seen as essential. One of the benefits of standardized testing is that it can be used to monitor student progress, as well as by extension, the quality of instruction or rather, if schools are fulfilling their promises to the public. More-so than that, testing can show weaknesses in the current system and thus, educators can focus their attention on improvement. Evaluation allows one make changes when necessary to maximize student success. The alternative view on using testing as a means of evaluation is that the results are used to measure the education system, which destroys real knowledge due to accountability pressure (Davis, 7).

However, this raises the question of what is and who should define real knowledge? Who should have a say in what information is deemed important or not? Phelps posits that critics that consider external standards and believe that each individual teacher gets to choose what is best for his/her classroom deny [the] legal reality that the public has the right to choose curricular order for schools (Phelps, 39), considering its their children doing the learning and the society at large that will be affected. Covaleskie supports this point, mentioning that when government agencies, acting under democratic procedures (i.e. yielding to the public’s vote), decide that schools should teach certain material, then it is their responsibility to ensure the material is taught.

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