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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Standardized Testing

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

It’s really not easy to shock me. It really isn’t. I am rarely surprised by things. But when the decision was made to go ahead with state testing this year, during a worldwide pandemic where kids have not had a regular school year by any means, I was shocked.

I understand the push to reopen school buildings. I really do. But the main argument that you hear in the opening school buildings argument is that student mental health is suffering. This has been a very tough year for many students, and during a normal school year, these yearly tests stress students out terribly, even when the teachers do not try to stress them out. So why are we pushing forward with them? I thought student mental health mattered?

I’m not really a fan of grading in general because I think it causes students to equate their self worth with numbers or letters, and they develop feelings about themselves and their self worth because of grades. Kids are so much more than a score and there are numerous more accurate and less damaging ways to assess students than using summative assessments and grades. But if we don’t have tests, and we don’t have grades, how can we make sure we are meeting student needs? I honestly believe the only reason we are testing this year is to attempt to measure how much the pandemic has impacted education. However, I don’t believe you need to put kids through testing to know the pandemic has impacted learning.

Assessment IS IMPORTANT. But it is a challenge to practice balanced assessment when you are only judged by the scores on one kind of test.

Standardized tests are a way to measure and compare students, teachers, schools, districts, and states. If we do not have one test that students take, then it can be difficult to compare and find out what teachers, schools, districts, or students may need more support. You can get data from standardized tests that might be useful, but at what cost? It’s just ONE data point. These tests cause students to stress out, teachers to stress out, administrators to stress out, superintendents to stress out, all because they ALL KNOW their effectiveness is going to be judged based off their pass rates of this one test. Standardized test scores can be used to monitor longitudinal growth from year to year, but like all data sets, there are many variables that must be considered when looking at standardized test data.

One thing that was so REFRESHING about pandemic teaching was that the whole teaching to the test stuff kind of took a back seat and teachers really developed some skills to track and use more formative data that gives much more detailed and timely information to drive instruction.

I have worked in “failing” schools and schools that were fully accredited, and I can tell you that a school being accredited based on a standardized test score doesn’t mean students can do math. In fact, I passed every standardized test in school and got As and Bs all through math, including in college, and I NEVER understood it until I learned real math in preparation to teach students.

When we look at these scores year after year the same items and standards (often the most important ones and the most difficult concepts to teach) come up low and the easy to teach and remediate skills come up higher. The opposite might also happen. If teachers spend more time building that good solid understanding then they may not have had time to cover EVERYTHING.

The key to moving students along at a good pace is authentic formative assessment, which requires that teachers have a deep understanding of the content they teach and how to assess student understanding.

The negative side effects of standardized testing:

1. Focus on surface level learning and answer getting.

2. Time lost for test prep and testing (even if it is integrated in smart ways). We are talking about losing about a quarter of the year for test prep. That is not an exaggeration at all.

3. Increases anxiety for students, teachers, and school and district leaders.

4. Not an accurate measure of student reasoning and understanding.

5. Students, teachers, and schools get labeled and judged based on scores, because that’s easier than actually taking the time to evaluate teaching.

6. Money taken away from supporting students. These tests do not tell teachers anything new. The amount of money used to administer standardized testing or produce products to raise scores could be allocated to provide better Human Resources to support teachers and students.

7. Students who may be developing readers may have unreliable data simply because they struggle to read the test items.

8. All the tests to prepare for the tests…these are a huge stress on teachers and are often set on pacing schedules so teachers lose the autonomy to teach at the pace of their students unless they choose to not care about benchmarks or district assessments.

I have spent the majority of my career watching teachers stress because they feel like they must race through curriculum to be done in time for a test. Many teachers feel they do not have the time or flexibility to use the data to adjust their instruction and solidify understandings before moving on to the next topic to be able to finish in enough time for the next assessment. This is especially problematic in math, as concepts build on each other and you can not build on an unstable foundation.

Tests have improved over time, and we can have great conversations about test items that can help us grow as educators. But we can also do this with authentic formative assessment.

An even scarier pattern I have noticed is that teachers end up caring more about test scores than understanding their standards in depth. Some teachers are so worried about getting their students to pass a test that they miss out on so many of the important concepts and skills that are outlined in the standards. They look at past tests to drive instruction rather than the curriculum framework. Even when I was in the classroom before I was a coach, I knew my curriculum framework well, but I still spent time checking what test items for certain concepts might look like on a standardized test, because I wanted to expose my students to the question stems just so they could make connections between what they did in class and the test item. Nothing was more disheartening than seeing a student who I knew understood a concept freeze up or shut down from anxiety because the test looked different from how we learn math in class.

Learning math doesn’t look like taking a test. We can assess along the way without stopping teaching and wasting valuable time taking tests and doing test prep. For all the ways I have used standardized test data as a math specialist, I am confident that there are other BETTER ways to assess student understanding and progress.

As educators, so much is out of our control. Decisions are often made for us rather than with us, and often the biggest decisions are made by people who have never led a classroom, which is especially frustrating.

What I will leave with is this:

Do not lose sight of what matters. Always remember that data tells you something, but it doesn’t tell you everything. Instead of worrying about testing and test prep, spend that time understanding your students, your standards in depth, and developing your instructional delivery. Build test prep into a routine that is ongoing but does not take up the bulk of your math block. If you do these things as well as consistently use authentic formative assessment as a tool to drive your instruction, your scores will be just fine at the end of the year. If you teach your kids to THINK, you need waaaaayyy less test prep.

And always remember, you and your students are so much more than a score.

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