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Testing for the Wrong Answers?

Updated: May 20, 2019

Standardized tests only measure what a student DOES NOT know instead of what they DO know.

Author Anya Kamenetz of New York Magazine, wrote an insightful article detailing one of the many erroneous assumptions that standardized testing is based upon entitled, “We’re Testing Children on the Wrong Things.”

Her article offers select material from the first chapter of her book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing--But You Don’t Have to Be in which she explores just the first of ten arguments against high-stakes standardized tests, as currently administered at virtually every public school in the nation.

Her primary point is simple, yet profound: We’re testing the wrong things. This naturally leads to several undesirable results, not the least of which is how much stress the tests impose on students, parents, and teachers:

The word of the day is anxiety. Parents are anxious about how their students’ scores—1 = below standard, 2 = basic, 3 = proficient, and 4 = exceeds proficient—will look on their applications for competitive public high schools. They call to complain that Leaf is doing either too much test prep or too little. Some New York City public schools send home workbooks for months on end; others hold Saturday tutoring sessions every week of the year. Despite the six days of mock testing, Leaf is actually on the lighter end of the spectrum… Teachers are anxious because 40% of their evaluations come from student scores on a combination of state and other standardized assessments.

Though some might argue that these results are anecdotal, consider the following:

In December 2013 MIT neuroscientists working with education researchers at Harvard and Brown Universities released a study of nearly 1,400 eighth graders in the Boston public school system. The researchers administered tests of the students’ fluid intelligence, or their ability to apply reasoning in novel situations, comprising skills like working memory capacity, speed of information processing, and the ability to solve abstract problems. By contrast, standardized tests mostly test crystallized intelligence, or the application of memorized routines to familiar problems. The researchers found that even the schools that did a good job raising students’ math scores on standardized tests showed almost no influence over the same students’ fluid intelligence.

Moreover, in Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, Daniel Koretz, an educational testing expert and the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes:

These tests can measure only a subset of the goals of education. Some goals, such as the motivation to learn, the inclination to apply school learning to real situations, the ability to work in groups, and some kinds of complex problem solving, are not very amenable to large-scale standardized testing. Others can be tested but are not considered a high enough priority to invest the time and resources required . . . even in assessing the goals that we decide to measure and that can be measured well, tests are generally very small samples of behavior that we use to make estimates of students’ mastery of very large domains of knowledge and skill.

Of course, among those of us who teach, the flaws of standardized testing have long been obvious...and the additional confirmation is heartbreaking. Moreover, considering the sheer magnitude of evidence to the contrary, the edutocracy's obsessive fixation on standardized testing becomes all the more inexplicable.

During my fourteen years of teaching high school history, I made a point of telling every single one of my students (repeatedly) exactly how I felt about standardized testing because I never wanted them to think their value as a human being could be somehow quantified by bubbling answers on a scantron. Every student is blessed with unique talents that are rarely, if ever, reflected in the tests they take.

These are just three of the many problems that I personally have with standardized tests:

  1. They are designed to demonstrate what a student DOES NOT know rather than what they DO know.

  2. They reinforce the “benefit” of the “cram-regurgitate-forget” method of "learning."

  3. “Acing” a test does not mean that learning occurred and "failing" a test does not mean that learning did not occur (a condition I saw repeated countless times over the years in my AP U.S. History classes et. al.).

Bottom line: When you can teach something in simple terms to another person…then you have learned. Until then, you are only familiar with something, not the master of it.

In Paula Bolyard’s poignant post, “Gasps of Disbelief as ‘Live with Kelly and Michael’ Top Teacher Resigns Over Common Core Testing”, she profiled 9th-grade teacher Stacie Starr, who resigned in the honorable tradition of John Taylor Gatto...choosing to leave the system that was hurting her kids.

My heart ached for her. Each and every day of my teaching career, I had to look in my students’ eyes and tell them in so many words, "I could help you so much more, if only the school system would let me."

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