Standardized-test scores are arguably the dominant measure of student achievement in the United States. School districts utilize standardized assessments because it yields quantifiable information (scores and proficiency levels). With this information, teachers and administrators are able to track students’ progress and pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses in particular content areas or skills. They can also use the data to compare students by grade level, age or content courses. Most importantly, standardized tests allow educators to measure student achievement at the conclusion of each grade-level.
Although standardized assessments are beneficial, this testing system has been criticized for the type of data it generates. Standardized critics argue that these tests do not measure student achievement adequately. According to Dan Conley’s report A New Era for Educational Assessment, standardized tests only measure to what degree a student can recall “isolated facts, concepts, and skills.”
Such tests encourage schools to divide complex subject matter into isolated fragments. In order to prepare students to do well on these tests, educators have treated literacy and numeracy as though they were nothing more than a collection of distinct pieces to be mastered, with little attention to students’ ability to put the pieces together or apply them to other subject areas or real-world problems.
It is true that standardized test items do not resemble class assignments or real-world tasks. Instead, these exams are comprised of predetermined skills and concepts. Each assessment item is purposefully designed to calculate the amount of information taught, minus the amount not learned. Thus, a student’s academic achievement level is based on how well he/she can retain grade-level information. Another design limitation is its inability to evaluate a young person’s overall growth as a learner over the course of his/her schooling. Standardized tests can only determine if an individual is proficient during his/her testing cycle. Theoretically, a student can still be labeled “low performing” because of his/her failure to obtain a score of proficient at year-end.
Despite these design flaws, K-12 education continues to administer standardized tests. Currently, these assessments are the only reliable and objective measures of student achievement. Without them, schools would have no learning data. Until other testing tools are perfected, school systems have no choice but to use these data tools.
These assessments have introduced some positive changes within the K-12 education system. First, districts are now accountable to make sure all students learn. Schools must increase every student’s academic performance gradually by year-end. Second, school systems have built up their curriculum and instructional programs as a result of standardized testing data. Nowadays, curriculum and instruction target higher-order thinking skills, which was not the norm in a number of schools in past decades. Finally, parents now have a better idea on how their children are doing as compared to students nationally and locally.
These tests are not perfect, but they now have a place in K-12 education. They may evolve into better data instruments, but will never be removed from our school programs.
- A New Era for Educational Assessment (2014). Available at: http://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/a-new-era-for-educational-assessment.pdf