The use of standardized testing to measure academic achievement in US schools has fueled debate for nearly two decades. Understanding the effects of standardized testing—its key benefits and challenges—requires a closer examination of what standardized testing is and how it’s used in academic settings.
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What Are Standardized Tests?
Standardized tests are examinations administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner. They typically rely heavily on question formats, such as multiple choice and true or false, that can be automatically scored. Not limited to academic settings, standardized tests are widely used to measure academic aptitude and achievement.
The ACT and SAT, standardized tests used broadly for college admissions, assess students’ current educational development and their aptitude for completing college-level work. Standardized academic achievement tests are mandatory in primary and secondary schools in the US, where they’re designed and administered at the state or local level and used to assess requirements for federal education funding.
Standardized testing requirements are designed to hold teachers, students, and schools accountable for academic achievement and to incentivize improvement. They provide a benchmark for assessing problems and measuring progress, highlighting areas for improvement.
Despite these key benefits, standardized academic achievement tests in US public schools have been controversial since their inception. Major points of contention have centered on who should design and administer tests (federal, state, or district level), how often they should be given, and whether they place some school districts at an advantage or disadvantage. More critically, parents and educators have questioned whether standardized tests are fair to teachers and students.
Effects of Standardized Testing on Students
Some of the challenging potential effects of standardized testing on students are as follows:
- Standardized test scores are often tied to important outcomes, such as graduation and school funding. Such high-stakes testing can place undue stress on students and affect their performance.
- Standardized tests fail to account for students who learn and demonstrate academic proficiency in different ways. For example, a student who struggles to answer a multiple-choice question about grammar or punctuation may be an excellent writer.
- By placing emphasis on reading, writing, and mathematics, standardized tests have devalued instruction in areas such as the arts, history, and electives.
- Standardized tests are thought to be fair because every student takes the same test and evaluations are largely objective, but a one-size-fits-all approach to testing is arguably biased because it fails to account for variables such as language deficiencies, learning disabilities, difficult home lives, or varying knowledge of US cultural conventions.
Effects of Standardized Testing on Teachers
Teachers as well as students can be challenged by the effects of standardized testing. Common issues include the following:
- The need to meet specific testing standards pressures teachers to “teach to the test” rather than providing a broad curriculum.
- Teachers have expressed frustration about the time it takes to prepare for and administer tests.
- Teachers may feel excessive pressure from their schools and administrators to improve their standardized test scores.
- Standardized tests measure achievement against goals rather than measuring progress.
- Achievement test scores are commonly assumed to have a strong correlation with teaching effectiveness, a tendency that can place unfair blame on good teachers if scores are low and obscure teaching deficiencies if scores are high.
Alternative Achievement Assessments
Critics of standardized testing often point to various forms of performance-based assessments as preferable alternatives. Known by various names (proficiency-based, competency-based), they require students to produce work that demonstrates high-level thinking and real-world applications. Examples include an experiment illustrating understanding of a scientific concept, group work that addresses complex problems and requires discussion and presentation, or essays that include analysis of a topic.
Portfolio-based assessments emphasize the process of learning over letter grades and normative performance. Portfolios can be made up of physical documents or digital collections. They can include written assignments, completed tests, honors and awards, art and graphic work, lab reports, or other documents that demonstrate either progress or achievement. Portfolios can provide students with an opportunity to choose work they wish to reflect on and present.
Performance-based assessments aren’t a practical alternative to standardized tests, but they offer a different way of evaluating knowledge that can provide a more complete picture of student achievement. Determining which systems of evaluation work best in specific circumstances and is an ongoing challenge for education administrators.
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