A Standard Education

With a blank scantron and a variety of number two pencils scattered across my desk, my eyes dart back and forth between the irritating tick of the clock and the straight-faced proctor stationed at the front of the room. I tap impatiently on the scratched wood of the desktop and wonder subconsciously about how my answers compare to those of the peer beside me. Students in public and private schools alike are well-aware of this grueling procedure known as standardized testing, which plays a major role in student evaluation for college admissions. The extensive amount of testing of American students has been raising a lot of questions about the necessity and accuracy of the standardized test. By failing to evaluate students natural creativity, and relying heavily on trivial information, it is unclear whether standardized tests provide an accurate profile of college applicants. However, major consequences would result from eliminating testing altogether, and therefore we must strive to implement alternative solutions to the damaged system and improve the accuracy of student evaluation.

The most concerning flaw in the American testing system is that standard assessments only test a student’s analytical skills, not their creative or practical skills, which are evidently more beneficial to their future success. The content of tests such as the SAT or ACT is “often trivial with little use outside an academic setting” (Sternberg) By evaluating students based on their ability to analyze and memorize, we not only suppress their natural creativity but we also fail to identify the most talented and competent applicants in college admissions. Because we live in an ever-changing world, approaching problems creatively will become a key to survival. How can we accurately determine which students possess the unique and innovative minds to cure cancer or to develop life-changing inventions? The answer is not based on their ability to display basic comprehension; however, America continues to place emphasis on these skills in preparing for and administering standardized tests. Students in other countries are already learning through creativity and strengthening their cognitive abilities, and if America does not do the same, we will “get left behind”.

Although the United States was once considered the leader of education in the world, that title has moved to a country with an education system that is radically different from America’s. Finland is currently one of the most successful and progressive countries when it comes to education. Corresponding with Meikle’s ideas of creative learning, Finnish schools promote localized systems where teachers create curriculum they feel will best cater to their students’ needs. Similar to other countries, Finland only has one standardized exam at the end of secondary education, and even that is not mandatory for graduation or post-secondary education (Darling-Hammond). Finland has worked in the opposite direction of the United States, choosing creative learning over standard-based exams. Although eliminating standardized testing was not the sole solution to Finland’s success, it did help create a better atmosphere for student learning and achievement. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, Finnish students ranked sixth in math, second in science, and third in reading internationally while the US ranks much lower at 30th, 23rd, and 17th respectively. The Finnish school system has achieved this success through a backwards approach to modern education. School teacher, Jussi Hietava, advocates for the concept of personalized learning in all classrooms, saying that Finland’s educational success can be traced back to the fact that teachers are not “strait-jacketed by bureaucrats, scripts or excessive regulations” but instead, able to customize daily curriculum and encourage students to think creatively (Doyle). Rather than stressing the importance of competition and frequent standardized assessment, Finland has established a innovative and collaborative classroom environment. Teachers are given the freedom to teach based on the individual needs and learning styles of their students rather than teaching a common curriculum and administering standardized assessments. Similar aspects of Finland’s model for education have been implemented in other countries such as Canada and Australia, and such countries have found positive outcomes. So why do American schools continue to focus on strict standards when it’s holding them back from the beneficial outcomes that other nations have achieved in eliminating them?

Despite Finland’s success without them, many educators feel that eliminating standardized testing is not the solution. Finland has an entire education system that has grown around the absence of testing over several decades. If America eliminated their testing, we would not have the wholesome education that encourages personalized or creative learning, to take its place. Our common curriculum would be ineffective in a system that holds little emphasis on the standardized test. Richard Phelps explores a variety of other reasons for continuing the practice of standardized testing in his article “Characteristics of an Effective Student Testing System.” The most important reason he mentions is the idea that schools will rely on teachers to analyze whether or not their students have mastered the material. This can be very problematic because there is no way to examine success across different schools, or even different teachers. One teacher could possibly grade more leniently than another, and their “passing” students might not have succeeded if they were in a different class. We cannot eliminate standardized testing as a whole or else concerns over unfair comparison would quickly surface. Both teacher and school evaluations rely on the existence of the standardized test that our education system has been built around. Without a standard assessment, how else can we ensure that students are meeting the same level of understanding in all parts of the nation? In addition, testing creates a “quantifiable benchmark” for college admissions officers to compare applicants from entirely different educational backgrounds. Eliminating the practice of standardized testing as a whole would make it extremely difficult for higher level institutions to compare student achievement levels. Because of our nation’s dependence on assessments for evaluating students and teachers on a common set of standards, it would be too drastic to eradicate this system entirely.

Instead of eliminating standardized testing, students and educators alike would most benefit from redirecting the purpose of these exams. Evidently, standardized assessments are crucial to evaluating and comparing various school districts and teachers, and therefore, should continue to be used for this purpose. However, where standardized tests fail to provide accurate feedback is in the college admissions process. The ideal applicant should be praised for their cognitive ability and innovative thinking, not their performance on a standard-based assessment. In order to give universities an idea of a student’s authentic work, schools should require the submission of portfolios or examples of specific achievement rather than numerical test scores. This will allow colleges to preview their prospective students and accurately determine whether they possess the creativity and problem-solving required for future success.

Those with doubts about the validity of the standardized test encourage performance-based assessments, however, many educators are opposed to portfolio evaluations because they allow schools to make “objective evaluations of prospective students.” However, the loss of precision in college admissions would be worth implementing a system that distinguishes exemplary students based on the display of inventiveness and individual passion. Replacing the requirement of standardized testing with performance assessments may be a less precise method but it is the best solution for a more accurate evaluation of student potential for future careers. Standardized tests are essential and beneficial for assessing students and teachers basic academic achievement but should no longer be one of the determining factors of a college application.

America’s reliance on standardized testing to evaluate the competency of its students is clearly flawed. The success other nations have achieved in eradicating this system has challenged the western belief that all students must be placed on a black and white scale to determine their potential for future success. Performance on a standard assessment says very little about the student and much more about the education system and competitive society from which they emerged. The practice of standardized testing and lack of creativity in today’s schools reaffirms the notion that the American educational system discredits individuality in its students. As program director Kevin Carey puts it, standardized learning cultivates classrooms of “robots rather than unicorns.” So why do we continue to base student achievement on quantitative test scores rather than qualitative evidence of cognitive abilities? By limiting American testing practices to school evaluation purposes and requiring college admissions to rely on performance-based assessments instead, we can aim to restore this loss in every classroom nationwide.