Testing: a Dirty Word?

Tests come in many forms, from the standardized tests given to millions of students each year, to a complex series of routines that a doctor puts you through when you complain of a pain. Sports tryouts are also a sort of test because your skills are compared to others and someone—a coach—makes a decision based on the outcome. Tests are part of life. They are unavoidable. All of life is a test. But are standardized tests in school necessary? In short, NO. At least as currently conceived.

I hope you didn’t think that teachers in schools where students actually study design the tests. Testing is a HUGE INDUSTRY. There are four major players in the testing industry: Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson. One could argue that these companies profit more from the testing craze than the students who take them and the teachers who teach the students.

In the past 15 years tests, and testing, have taken on a life of their own. Already a big industry when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2002, testing companies now earn nearly $1 billion per year. The backbone of NCLB was a series of standardized tests given to all public school students in grades 3 through 8. That really means all schools. I’ll discuss NCLB in more depth at another time. Put another way, there are estimates that mid-sized school districts spend between $700 and $1,000 per student on testing each year. Testing also adds between 60 to 110 hours per year of test prep in high-stakes testing areas.

You might have a different idea of what a test actually is than I do. I’ll clarify a few things. First of all, tests and assessment are not the same. Assessment goes on every single day in almost every school and in numerous other places. At its best, assessment provides the ____________ (fill in the blank….teacher, coach, drill sergeant) with a way to improve what the desired outcomes are. It has been said that a test is a ‘thing’ and an assessment is a ‘process.’ In the best of all worlds tests are part of assessment. And not all tests are the same either.

The real culprit is the standardized test that is connected to numerous other actions that may or may not be well correlated with the test itself. And while standardized testing itself might not take significant time away from instruction, test preparation does. It is also worth remembering that not all testing is mandated by NCLB. Many districts, especially urban ones, administer far more tests than their suburban counterparts.

A standardized test is one where all are required to answer the same questions and where the scoring is done in a consistent manner. There is something to be said for standardization in some areas, but not all components of standardized tests are standard, given great differences in educational preparation related to income.

One of the biggest problems of standardized tests—in addition to the costs associated with them—is their use. Several states have recently decided to connect the results of some standardized tests to annual teacher reviews. There are many factors in student test-taking success; teacher input is only one factor, if often the most important one. There is also a lot of anxiety associated with standardized tests.

I will discuss this anxiety, especially as it relates to high-stakes testing in future blogs.

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