Putting Standardized Testing to the Test

Finland has the best education in the modern western world (Doyle 1). Why is Finland so advanced when it comes to education? They do just “about the opposite of what we do in the United States,” says Harvard professor, Howard Gardner (Doyle 1). Finland is able to teach its students in a stress free environment, filled with 15 minute breaks every hour, and constant daydreaming; all while achieving some of the highest test scores in the world (Doyle 1). Finland along with its Eastern Asian counterparts rank within the top five of the global education index from Pearson (2014) while the US comes in at 14th place (Pearson 1).

The United States’ need for improvement raises questions concerning what the contributing factors are to our current global ranking. Questions, in fact, that have been answered in a study published by Harvard University, and publicized by the news source; Occupy. The U.S. education system is most lacking in its ability to adapt to the new technologies of the modern era, insufficient lesson variation; and mistakenly makes up for its lacking by following an ancient and single-minded capitalistic pursuit (Occupy 1). While, clearly the inability to adapt to evolving forms of schooling is a large part of the education crisis, there is a bigger issue that the majority of schools, teachers, students, and government entities fail to recognize: standardized testing.

Ron Berler, author of Raising the Curve, is just one of the many passionate journalists covering this educational outrage by using his book to decisively illustrate the widespread negative effects of standardized testing (Berler 1). The number of concerned parents, citizens, and politicians who share Ron’s consternation grows rapidly as the overly emphasized role of standardized testing in American education becomes increasingly apparent. If America wishes to climb back up the global education index and pioneer our world in overall edification, then it needs to substantially reduce the amount of standardized tests used in its K-12 education system, otherwise the United States’ schooling system will forever be broken.

Before continuing to look into why standardized testing is the root of so many of our educational problems, it is paramount to momentarily outline, for all those unfamiliar, the original intention and good-natured premise to which standardized testing came about; and the extent to which it has overstayed its welcome.

“A standardized test is one of intelligence, achievement, or personality whose reliability has been established by obtaining an average score of a significantly large number of individuals for use as a standard of comparison” (Merriam-Webster). More simply; any testing situation in which the same test is given in the same manner to all test takers, equally. At the turn of the century, in the early 1800s, when labor laws took kids out of factories and farms and placed them behind desks, standardized examinations emerged as an easy way to quickly test large quantities of students (Fletcher 1). For the next century the schooling system established itself as a cornerstone of the American lifestyle; and hidden within that cornerstone was a much smaller tile representing standardized exams; an idea being tossed around and developed by higher education institutions (Fletcher 1). Then in the 1930s, the century of endless experimental standardized tests culminated with the creation of the infamous SAT, and shortly following, the ACT (Fletcher 1). The implementation of these college entrance exams, started a trend that exists to this day. That trend being, the United States’ education system and government value test scores and standardized exams over personalized education. Leading to the propagation and extensive support of flawed legislation such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and No Child Left Behind (Fletcher 1). The United States is approaching a pivotal crest, where it must make a legislative and national course correction on how students in the nation are taught (Almagor 1).

Now, that the history of testing has been established, it is apt to address the many benefits of standardized testing for a student’s education, their teachers, and the school districts to which they belong. For students and their parents, the data gathered from tests identifies areas of difficulty, and in turn can help teachers adjust instruction to adapt to an individual’s learning needs (Michigan Education Association 1). For example:

Think about the parents who discover that their 4th grade child is performing really well in language arts (94th percentile) and mathematics (89th percentile), but rather poorly in science (39th percentile) and social studies (26th percentile). Clearly, the child needs to work to improve their science and history comprehension. Such information, because it illuminates a child’s strengths and weaknesses, can be helpful not only in dealing with their child’s teacher, but also in determining at-home assistance (Popham 1).

For teachers, “tests essentially help to determine if students have learned what was expected of them and if it is the right time to move on to the next objective” (Lerchenfeldt 1). Tests are one of the most valuable tools a teacher has in their toolbox of teaching. Testing provides a means of unfiltered and honest feedback to the educator about whether their methods of learning are effective (Augustine 1).

For schools districts, results from standardized tests can help inform educational policy, school improvement, or instructional practice (Michigan Education Association 1). In addition, “standardized tests are often scored by computers or at the very least scored by people who do not directly know the student”, so they are provenly unbiased and provide unsolicited data for improvement (Columbia University 1). Overall, it’s a way to oversee that teachers are in fact doing their jobs, and they aren’t abusing their tenure (Columbia University 1).

However, solving the testing crisis is easier said than done. In fact, most if not all of the affirmative arguments for standardized testing can be easily refuted by looking at our modern day system today. The vast benefits that is achievable through standardized testing are real, however, in our modern day education system, they are idealistic and ineffective at producing results.

It is principal that one recognizes the current flaws in the education system. Firstly, what is in a test? What makes up these orchestrated manipulations? What are we subjecting our children to? “Student performances on standardized achievement tests are heavily influenced by 3 causative factors: only one of which is linked to instructional quality” (Popham 1). The three causative factors include: 1) What is taught in school, 2) A student’s native intellectual ability, and 3) A student’s out-of-school learning (Popham 1). Anyone who has ever taken a standardized test can recognize each type of the causative factors in certain questions.

For example, the most logical test questions included are questions based off what is taught in school. In the sample test question below, the proposed word problem asks the student to do some basic subtraction: (Popham 1)

Sally has 14 pears. Then she gave away 6. Which of the number sentences below can you use to find out how many pears Sally has left?

A) 14+6=______

B) 6+14=______

C) __ -6=14

D) 14–6=______

“This question would contribute to a valid inference about a student’s ability to choose appropriate number sentences for a variety of basic computation problems presented in verbal form” (Popham 1). These are the types of questions which our tests should be limited to asking, but instead testing corporations decide to also ask questions about native intellectual ability.

The unfairness that lies within testing native intellectual ability is fairly obvious (Popham 1). Certain kids were luckier at gene-pool time (Popham 1). Put simply, “if children came into the world having inherited identical intellectual abilities, teachers’ pedagogical problems would be far more simple” (Popham 1). Below, is an example of a very real standardized test question concerning native intellectual ability: (Popham 1)

If someone really wants to conserve resources, one good way to do so is to:

A) Leave lights on even if they are not needed

B) Wash small loads instead of large loads in a washing machine

C) Write on both sides of a piece of paper

D) Place used newspaper in the garbage

In the example question above, the correct answer is the third option, “write on both sides of a piece of paper.” However, if a student were to answer this question correctly, they would not be proving what they have learned (Popham 1). On the other hand, if the student gets the question wrong, the only thing they are proving, is that they do not have the same access to recycling resources as other students may (Popham 1). Obviously, measuring differences in students’ in-born intellectual abilities do not contribute to valid inferences about “how well children have been taught” (Popham 1).

The third and most absurd type of question is based off out-of-school learning. Below, is an example of such a question (Popham 1):

A fruit always contains seeds. Which of the following items below is not a fruit?

A) Orange

B) Pumpkin

C) Apple

D) Celery

The correct answer is the final option, “celery”. However, what if, “when you were a youngin’, your folks didn’t have the money to buy celery at the store?” (Popham 1). What if one’s circumstances simply did not give them the chance to have meaningful interactions with celery stalks by the time they were in the 6th grade? (Popham 1). Clearly, if children come from higher income families and stimulus-rich environments, then “they are more apt to succeed on items in standardized achievement test items than will other children whose environments don’t mesh as well with what the tests measure” (Popham 1). Children from a higher socioeconomic family have — books in the home, private tutoring, access to test-prep agencies, high-quality health care, and access to good food (Hagopian 1). Truly, “standardized tests are better indicator of a student’s zip code rather than their aptitude” (Hagopian 1).

Evidently, testing conglomerates have forgotten that these test takers are still children. Children that are growing, learning, and don’t handle stress well. In fact, there are “instructions for teachers for what to of if a student throws up during the test” (“Last Week Tonight Show”). That is just wrong! Something is wrong with out system, “when we just expect a certain amount of students to throw up on these tests because of the stress” (“Last Week Tonight Show”). In defense of these adolescent vomiters, they are put under copious amounts of pressure. For many students the pressure of test taking comes from the overwhelming amount of tests they take. A typical student takes around 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade depending on the state; with the heaviest testing load falls on the nation’s eighth-graders, who spend an average of 25.3 hours during the school year taking standardized tests (Council of the Great City Schools 1). According to Atlantic journalist, Emily Richard, “if eight tests a school year and entire weeks dedicated to standardized testing isn’t excessive then I’m not sure what is” (Richmond 1).

Now that the what and the why are understood, the who is still left up scrutiny. When it comes to standardized testing, the who is the testocracy (Hagopian 1). The testocracy is “the elite stratum of society that finances and promotes competition and privatization in public education rather than collaboration, critical thinking, and the public good” (Hagopian 1). Those a part of the testocracy include companies such as CTB, McGraw Hill, Measured Progress, and the biggest of them all, Pearson (Layton 1). Companies like Pearson create the tests, the textbooks used to study for the tests, and certify the teachers allowed to teach the material (Layton 1). Looking back to the first paragraph, even the global education index is from Pearson. While looking through the lens of a random student:

“It is possible to take Pearson tests from k-8th grade, (and study for the test using Pearson curriculum study books) by teachers who are all certified to teach test taking skills by Pearson. If they develop a mental disability, they take a Pearson test to evaluate that as well. And if she wants to drop out, the GED is also a Pearson Tests!!!” (Last Week Tonight Show).

This hidden monopoly of the public education system only benefits the corporation in charge. “The textbook and testing industry generates between $20 billion and $30 billion dollars per year” (Hagopian 1). Evidently, the standardized testing industry has been privatized and there is no limit to what these corporations can force our children to do. Many syndicates are generating billions of dollars off low quality tests such as “in New York, a few years ago, 30 test questions were declared invalid for having errors or being incomprehensible” (Last Week Tonight Show). And if the test questions themselves weren’t faulty enough, these conglomerates are even worse when it comes to grading the tests. Several years ago, “an ad was placed on Craigslist by Pearson for test graders”, and on top of that recent testimonies have come to light that point to companies like Pearson giving out grades based on quota (Last Week Tonight Show). As stated in a testimony from test grader, Dan Dimaggio, “there’s a certain amount of 2’s and 3’s and 4’s that were given out the previous year, so they said to give out the same amount this year” (Dan Dimaggio). Evidently, the grading of these tests is not unbiased, thusly undermining the whole purpose of a standardized test in the first place (Last Week Tonight Show).

To make matters worse, the government and “assistive legislation” has additionally been of no help. Instead of helping, No Child Left Behind and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act made the situation worse by instituting an accountability system for teachers via value added analysis (Berger 1).

The aim of the accountability system being included in No Child Left Behind was to give teachers a larger incentive to do a better job. However, the unexpected result has become, that “these days, if a school’s standardized test scores are high, people think the school’s staff is effective. If a school’s standardized test scores are low, they see the school’s staff as ineffective” (Popham 1). By using a value added analysis, teacher pay is tied to student improvement. As a result, there have been thousands of cases within the past decade in which teachers have been caught altering, changing, and rewriting test scores in order to cheat the system. Often times, however, cheating is still not enough. Luke Flynt from Florida is just one teacher who has experiences such unfairness:

“I have 4 students whose predicted scores were literally impossible. One of my predicted students had a predicted score of 286.34. However, the highest a student can earn on the test is a 283. The student did earn a 283 incidentally. And despite the fact she earned a perfect score, she counted negatively towards my teacher evaluation due to the fact that she was 3 points below her predicted score. In turn, I was paid less.”

This system is utterly flawed and should not be the primary form of testing for our nations future.

Overall, these tests have proven time and time again to be inaccurate and exist only for the sole purpose of pedaling a profit cycle for the privatized testing industry. They are so unfair that students have even avoided going to public school altogether to avoid the mayhem. These privileged children attend academies and extreme education magnets that allow students to “think outside the bubble test, to develop critical thinking skills and prioritize time to explore art, music, drama, athletics, and debate” (Hagopian 1).

Understandably, after learning the truth behind the favoritism and unfairness of standardized tests, it is with in human nature to wonder, if there is a solution. Is there any way to fix the system? Yes. Districts and edification groups must follow in the footsteps of Miami-Dade County Public Schools that cut the number of district mandated end of course exams from 300 to 10, and eliminated them entirely from elementary school (Layton 1). They must follow in the footsteps of California, Minnesota, Mississippi, Alaska, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia, as they put an end to extensive high school graduation tests (Layton 1). They must follow in the footsteps of 38 New York schools that have chosen to skip standardized tests altogether (Robinson 1). Instead, in order to graduate, students must complete presentations, write reports, and defend their work on a more professional standard (Robinson 1). In fact, for these 38 schools, the graduation rate is 77% while the graduation rate for the rest of New York’s schools are 68% (Robinson 1). They must follow in the footsteps of thousands of schools throughout the United States, that have gotten rid of AP testing altogether, and still have ivy-league bound graduates. Schools and districts such as these understand that in order for students to succeed they need to be allowed the freedom to take less standardized tests. Yet, these are only a few possible solutions the nation has the option of undertaking.

The education systems could “treat academic testing like the rotating hearing test or scoliosis checkup” (Almagore 1). Sample two or three students at random and without preparation, every week throughout the year and “sit them at a computer. Let them click through the test with little fuss. Measure what they can do on that day, share the data with teachers and parents, and then send them right back to class” (Almagore 1). Or, they could focus on varying the ways in which we evaluate students from just end-of-course exams to project based testing, online evaluations, and research papers (Jehlen 1). Or, they could void the question and answer testing system altogether and get creative, by implementing stealth assessments, in which students use a certain software throughout the year for their work, and tests the overall learning ability and knowledge level (Kamenetz 1). There are even possibilities for development regarding video game and portfolio based testing; but none of these options are considered practical, if, as a nation, we do not move in the right direction (Kamenetz 1).

Let it be noted that our nation’s leaders are making the first steps in the right direction. Obama is “urging states to require a 2 percent cap on classroom time devoted to taking such exams” and he’s calling to ensure that tests are high quality (Richmond 1). In addition to his new Common Core national assessment, which reduces the quantity of federal standardized tests and instead “requires students to synthesize multiple sources, write analytical essays, perform a ‘research simulation,’ and solve multi-part problems that feel more like logic puzzles” (Almagore 1). Obama and his administration are attempting to make an effort, but sadly it is still not enough to make a dent in the issue at hand. It is going to take a coordinated effort from the national and state governments to revamp the entire education system to steer the focus away from standardized testing.

Our nation has options, its just a matter of embracing them. As a country, we could take the first step and separate standardized testing and private companies completely (Broussard 1). By ending the profit sum game of student testing, we are in turn ending standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books, and are biased towards students above a certain socioeconomic background (Broussard 1). We could also take the obvious next step and sever teacher pay from test scores (Broussard 1). Teachers deserved to be paid based on their ability to teach the material, not their ability to teach test taking skills. Finally, testing scores need to accessible sooner rather than later. The results of standardized tests can be useful if one can access them soon enough after the test.

The United States is approaching a pivotal crest, where it must make a legislative and national course correction on how students in the nation are taught; and while our leaders and government is taking small steps, we need to drastically reduce the amount of standardized tests in place if we ever wish to climb back up Pearson’s global education index (Almagor 1).

Works Cited

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