The Pros and Cons of Using Standardized Tests

In 1996, the Ontario government enacted legislation requiring all students in grades 3, 6, and 9 in the province of Ontario to take mandatory standardized tests in reading, writing and math. The Ministry of Education uses these yearly tests to increase the quality of education in Ontario and to plan for future improvements. Each year the government spends $32 million to administer the tests and an additional $77 million to improve future test scores. While there is no merit pay connected to improved test scores in Ontario, schools feel a heavy pressure to continually improve their results.

Since the introduction of the tests, Ontario has had a great deal to celebrate. High school graduation rates have improved and the gap between students receiving special education supports and other students has been reduced. The results of immigrants who don’t speak English when they arrive in Ontario have also risen rapidly. The number of low-performing schools in the province has been reduced significantly and the overall performance of the almost 5,000 schools in the province has radically improved in reading and writing.

Since the introduction of the tests, Ontario also has a great deal not to celebrate. While elementary reading and writing scores have climbed, math scores have not. In fact, the overall performance in math has consistently and significantly declined for the past five years. There’s also a growing slippage between students in Grades 3 and 6; nineteen percent of students who met the standard of 75 percent in grade 3 did not meet it in Grade 6. Ontario’s math performance is on the decline as compared to other countries too; the overall average math score has decreased steadily by 16 points over the past nine years. These results come from the 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores.

Some blame an underlying societal attitude for Ontario’s decreasing math scores, an attitude that says some students are good at math while others aren’t. Others say teachers aren’t as comfortable teaching math as they are teaching reading and writing. Others wonder if the declining math scores are the price Ontario has paid for a heavy emphasis by schools to drive up their reading and writing scores. Whether or not the latter is true, it begs an important question.

Has anything else suffered because of the push for improved test scores?

Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity, and innovation says when we focus too much on test scores we ignore the development of important things like creativity, innovation, imagination, curiosity and effort.

These are required skills for our unknowable future and standardized tests measure none of them. Robinson says our “fast food” model of standardized education impoverishes the spirits and energies of our children. He believes that our current industrial educational model, based on conformity, needs to be replaced with a model using agricultural principles, where we create conditions under which children flourish through personalized, and not standardized, curriculum. Robinson says that we are still “hypnotized” by many of the ideas that were formed in previous centuries and standardized testing is one of them.

Standardized tests were first used in China. They were designed to help the state select the best candidates to work for the bureaucracy as administrative officials. Standardized tests were introduced to Britain in the early 19th century because it was feared that the British Empire would collapse if the tests weren’t implemented. The standardized testing movement spread to North America during the Industrial Revolution. Western academics had preferred to use essays to assess their students (this philosophy was inherited from Ancient Greece) but student numbers increased when education became compulsory, making the essay more challenging to mark due to increased volume.

While standardized tests can and do provide important data to help support and improve education, we encounter problems when the tests become more than a tool of education and turn into the focus of education. This is what is currently happening in Ontario.

John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, says that we put too much focus on attainment (marks, grades) and we spend too much time comparing kids to an established standard. Instead, we should pay more attention to individual growth by measuring where each child is in his or her current learning, compared with past learning.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, professors of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College write that standardization has “dumbed down our curriculum” and “burdened our schools with bigger government and overbearing bureaucracy.” They say that, as a result, Ontario schools cannot adapt flexibly to the future. Hargreaves and Shirley believe that our future depends on developing the “present and future capacities” of our kids and we should do this through mindful teaching and learning.

What does mindful teaching and learning look like? It’s a balanced approach that teaches kids to reconstruct what they have observed and experienced using both logic (through words) and feelings (through art). Mindful teaching and learning teaches kids to communicate in a variety of ways; to think critically and to solve problems. Mindful teaching and learning gives teachers and schools greater autonomy, flexibility, and creativity in meeting the needs of their students and communities. It allows and encourages kids to think and act independently and to question the world around them. Mindful teaching and learning personalizes the curriculum for students, it emphasizes focus and concentration, effort over achievement, growth over attainment, and cooperation over competition.

In Ontario today, we have arguably one of the most sophisticated systems of education in the world. We’ve made incredible gains through the use of standardized testing, but we’ve also got some serious deficits to overcome.

Standardized testing, considered to be the main route to school improvement, has its limits and it’s time to recognize that. It’s a tool that was designed centuries ago and it has been a useful way to improve our factory production model of education. But if we want to create an educational system that is able to adapt flexibly to the rapid changes ahead, we’ll have to rethink the way we use standardized tests.

Hargreaves says that statistically valid sampling is the way to go. This means using standardized tests on smaller numbers of students by gathering random samples, instead of testing every student. Hargreaves says standardized testing is “firmly in retreat” in the United Kingdom, Alberta and Nova Scotia, because it’s “just not worth it” in terms of return on the investment.

He argues that governments that retain and promote testing by census, which is what we currently do in Ontario, will increasingly find that they are no longer leading school reform, but they are bringing up the rear. He says we must push beyond standardization and data-driven decision making, and release teachers from tight government control, to bring passion, joy, creativity, inspiration and innovation back into teaching and learning.

If Ontario wishes to continue to lead school reform around the world, then the use of standardized tests will need to be reconsidered. A useful tool in the traditional world, they could easily become handcuffs in the modern one.

Debbie L. Kasman is author of the book Lotus of the Heart: Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul and she blogs weekly about topics that pertain to spirituality, education and female leadership.

Standardized Testing Vs Education

For years our schools have been lagging behind other countries. Many students enter our colleges without the skills they need to succeed. In order to find the gaps in education educators came up with Standardized testing. Used in that way it can be a very helpful tool. I interviewed to Kay Sibley who retired after 33 years in education, she said “For Standardized testing to work it has it has to reflect what’s taught in the classroom. The results of the tests have to be applied correctly and used to help the students.” Unfortunately it has become a way to penalize teachers and schools. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is one example of this. If students don’t do well on the standardized tests then the schools and teachers are held accountable. NCLB was supposedly written with the purpose of improving education and to find those kids who are slipping through the cracks.

The intent of NCLB was to both increase education standards nationwide and to standardize curriculum from state to state. The Federal government cannot control what states require their schools to teach but they can cut Federal funding for states that do not comply with NCLB. NCLB was based on a theory of outcome based education, which is a belief that the higher you set the standards and goals, the better your results will be. Part of the thinking behind this law was that poor performing schools were only failing because their standards were not set high enough. For example, a school set in a poor neighborhood is only failing because no one expects it to do well. NCLB doesn’t take into account any of the environmental influences on the kids in the low performing schools. NCLB was one of the driving forces that turned standardized testing into the disaster it has become, because creates an atmosphere where the results are not utilized to help the students succeed and it doesn’t take into consideration the amount of support students are receiving outside the classroom.

Many children receive little or no support at home. In the best of these cases the parents are working a couple of jobs or long hours so they don’t have the opportunity to help their children with school work. In many cases though, parents view all education as the schools responsibility so children start out behind. We see kids entering kindergarten that don’t know how to color, glue or use scissors. As these same children enter higher grades, they don’t have anyone to read to at home or to practice math facts with. Today’s children arrive at school without breakfast and often have not had enough sleep, which results in difficulty focusing on their schoolwork. I’ve even been told by 1st and 2nd graders that they had to stay up really late. I don’t know what the exact statistics are on hungry students but the number ranges somewhere between 16% and 40%. I am guessing that the huge discrepancy between figures is that the criteria of the studies vary greatly combined with the fact that parents are hesitant to admit that their children have to go to school hungry. However none of these facts are taken into account when it comes to standardized testing. This is important because if a child is sleepy or hungry, they are more easily distracted. It also takes them longer to process the information and to answer the questions. They are also more likely to make mistakes or misread the questions and answers on the tests.

Teachers with years of experience are having a difficult time keeping up with all the changes and the accelerated pace that all of these standardized tests create so how can we really expect for kids to cope? If they are a child who is running on empty because of lack of sleep or food, then it becomes close to impossible. Heaven help them if there is a learning disability thrown into the mix. In my interview with Mrs. Sibley she stated “More students need accommodations than are getting them. To give a standardized test to some students is insane. Because of the learning difficulties some the students have.” It’s true that states are required to give accommodations to students who qualify under modified learning plans but what about the child who has processing issues and is only a few points away from qualifying for special education. These are the students that really need extra support but because of lack of funding and lack of staff there are only so many kids who can be caught in the special education net. We should be eliminating the costs of standardized testing and using those funds to support our students instead.

There are so many students who should be receiving extra help but they fall just above the minimum to be eligible to receive this help. They are left to take the tests on their own. These are the same students that teachers desire to have more time with but because they have to get the class ready for the standardized tests they have to push on to make sure they have taught all of the material that will be on the standardized tests. This is another way that standardized testing is harming our children’s education. It forces teachers to move on even though they know that their students have gaps in their understanding. They essentially find themselves ‘teaching to the tests’.

The initial argument against NCLB was that teachers would wind up ‘teaching to the test’, which essentially means that students would be taught according to what is on the test. At first glance that may sound like a good thing; people think that it means that their students are being taught everything they need to know at each grade level. What it really means is that students aren’t receiving a well rounded education. There aren’t as many enrichment topics being taught. Frequently it leaves little or no time for teachers to explain to students how the material applies to the students lives. Unfortunately, the initial argument against statewide standardized tests has been validated, teachers tell me all the time that they feel like they are ‘teaching to the test’ and they don’t really feel like they are allowed enough time to effectively teach each subject.

Since standardized testing has become the driving force behind teaching, one of the teachers I work with told me that teaching has become more and more difficult each year. Teachers feel like they are teaching to the tests and there are many. This lowers the morale of the teachers as well as the students. It also creates a huge amount of anxiety for students who don’t feel that they are good test takers. People are starting to call standardized tests, ‘high stakes tests’ because in some states, students have to pass a test to move on to the next grade or to graduate. Unfortunately many schools are so strapped financially that they don’t have the funds to address the inequalities that are affected by funding and they are so busy keeping up with the tests that they don’t have time to address the inequalities that don’t require funding.

Because of standardized testing children are no longer receiving a cohesive education. Students are inundated with information that seems disconnected. Children are essentially being given all the puzzle pieces, but they are not given any instruction as to how to assemble the pieces. There is no real sense of how to apply what they are learning. If what they are only learning what they need to pass all of the standardized tests then how are these kids going to be equipped to face a future that’s based on applied knowledge?

In an effort to improve test scores quickly, curriculum changes constantly. School Administrators are trying to find the secret formula because they are pressured to show instant results. The way my younger son was taught math two years ago was different than the way he was taught math last year. So kids not only have to learn each subject, they have to change the way they think about that subject and they have to answer each question according to the new rules. All of this takes away from kids having a chance to really absorb the meat of the subject and see how it all fits together. You learn everything quickly so you can spit it out on a test and then pass on to the next thing without really grasping the concepts. The school day is now so fast paced that the teachers are forced to move on to the next section of learning, even if their students really need them to spend more time on the current portion of curriculum. Teachers are forced to move so quickly, students are expected to learn math facts in a fraction of the time that used to be allowed. I know many third grade students that have a hard time adding something as simple as seven plus five. Those that can add numbers written on a page can’t necessarily add two nickels and two pennies. The information is disconnected. Instead of preparing for tests the teachers should be allowed to teach the basics that our kids need to know to function in society.

The result of this lack of a deeper understanding is starting to be seen in high school students today. Test scores nationwide are improved at the elementary school level but by the time these kids reach high school, the scores are actually dropping. “We are ending up with kids in upper-level math courses who do not know how to add, subtract or divide unless they use a calculator and who are lost when it comes to fractions.” (Welsh, 2008) This is a sad fact since another reason for all of this standardized testing is to ensure that our students know what they need to know to do well in college. If you can only read at an eighth grade level or you can only do simple math then how are you going to get into college and if you do, how will you survive? Not only is the standardized testing not working, it’s taking away from our students really learning what they need to know to succeed in life.

Many people view the problems with education as belonging only to those who have kids in school so they tend to vote down any additional funding for schools. What many people seem to forget is that the students in schools now are going to be adults in the next fourteen years. If these students are under educated it will result in a larger burden on programs like public assistance or additional education through the employment agencies. We need to change our education system now. The money spent on standardized testing would be better spent on programs like afterschool tutoring, smaller class sizes and broadening special needs education to encompass all children who are struggling in school. It’s time to stop spending money and time on standardized testing which gives us a false sense of how our teachers are doing and start putting money and time into giving our students the best education possible.

Instead of all the standardized tests students are subjected to the teachers should be able to write their own tests based on the curriculum that students need to know at each grade level in order to have a strong educational foundation. The results of these tests need to be used to find out which students are lacking understanding and in what areas so that they can re-teach those concepts. Smaller class sizes would allow teachers more time to challenge advanced students and to help struggling students over the hurdles in front of them. Teachers should be allowed more flexibility to teach a more integrated curriculum so that students are able to see why fractions are important. They need to be allowed time to show children the wonder of literature instead of teaching them to decode small bits of information so that they can get the right answer on tests. If there was less money spent on standardized testing material then school districts might have the money for new technology, books and supplies for our classrooms.

Teachers need to be able to take the time necessary to build a strong foundation in learning in the earlier grades so that we are turning out well educated productive members of society. This includes more time for math facts, reading concepts, arts, sciences, social studies and even physical education. We need to get away from ‘teaching to the test’ and a use a format that helps students see how these things apply to their lives instead of just how it applies to a test. We owe it to today’s students as well as ourselves to do away with standardized testing and start focusing on teaching students what they need to know at each grade level so that they can enter college fully prepared to learn what they need to know to enter society on a solid foundation. We have to take action and start asking the federal government as well as our state governments why they are still using standardized testing as a way to fix our schools when it’s clearly not working. We need to speak up for our children and tell the government that we want real changes in the education system, changes that will help our students instead of hurting our schools and educators.s