Do Standardized Tests Show an Accurate View of Students' Abilities?

Standardized tests play a major role in education today, whether they are achievement tests measuring subject-specific knowledge or aptitude tests measuring scholastic readiness. The goal of the assessments is to provide a yardstick to evaluate student performance across state standards.

Standardized testing

The No Child Left Behind Act and the Common Core State Standards Initiative are prominent examples of test-based accountability policies. The practice has ignited a debate about their effectiveness and how well this kind of test measures student achievement.

Both sides are vocal about the pros and cons of standardized testing and the high stakes increasingly riding on the outcome. Low scores can prevent a student from advancing to the next grade or lead to school closings and teacher dismissals while high scores factor into tenure decisions and continued federal funding.

Several states have tied student performance to teacher evaluation. The National Council on Teacher Quality reported in January 2014 that “about a third of all states had adopted evaluation policies requiring teacher evaluations to include objective measures of student achievement as a significant or preponderant criterion in teacher evaluations.”

But the report noted, “Over the past five years, 37 states have improved their overall teacher policy grades by at least one full grade level because of significant reform, particularly in the areas of teacher evaluation and related teacher effectiveness policies.”

In addition, the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that students in grades 4 and 8 taught by teachers with a master’s education scored higher on standardized math and reading assessments than students whose teachers hold only a bachelor’s degree.

Proponents say these tests measure student achievement, ensure teachers and schools are accountable to taxpayers, and provide consistency.

Opponents say the tests promote a “teaching to the test” curriculum and undermine innovation and critical thinking and are not the best evidence of student performance.

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Teaching to the test

With so much riding on the results, teachers often feel compelled to teach to the tests. In some schools, less time is being spent on the sciences, social studies and the arts to prepare students to take the tests in math, reading and writing.

Some observers have found that teaching informed by the test focuses the curriculum on essential content and skills, eliminates activities that don’t produce learning gains, and motivates teachers and students to exert more effort.

Questions and answers

Standardized tests feature multiple-choice or open-ended questions; some tests combine both. Because answers are scored by machine, multiple-choice tests generally have high reliability. Open-ended questions ask students to write a short answer or an extended response.

Critics say multiple-choice tests are too simplistic, while advocates note that technology improvements feature items that demand more critical thinking before choosing a response. Open-ended questions allow students to display knowledge and apply critical thinking skills, but most require human readers.

Too many tests?

Even though the public supports testing and accountability, many worry that there is excessive testing, burdening teachers and students. In addition to the high-stakes assessments, some districts are administering benchmark assessments periodically to monitor the effect of instruction before the state tests are administered in the spring.

A 2006 Center on Education Policy report found that teaching a curriculum aligned to state standards and using test data as feedback produced higher scores than emphasizing test-taking skills.

Other performance measurements

Test scores attract most of the attention because they are quantifiable and allow comparisons. But other measures can show how well schools are performing. These indicators include:

  • High school graduation rates and the number of dropouts.
  • Enrollments in advanced placement and other college prep courses.
  • College acceptance rates, including scholarships.
  • College remediation rates for recent high school graduates.

Although standardized tests make it easy to compare school performance, they are just one of many measures that should be used to evaluate student ability and readiness for college and career.

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