What We Really Fear: 5 Myths about Standardized Testing

Student and teacher anxiety gradually mount.  Expendable activities like art and P.E. begin to make way for multiple choice practice time.  Policymaker, administrator, and parent debates rekindle.  You guessed it, standardized testing season approaches.


Despite all the options available for more effective learning evaluations, the high-stakes, billion-dollar machine of one-size-fits-all government assessments continues to prevail in the US.  After reading dozens of articles on assessment alternatives (and their comments), we started finding clues that may help explain why things haven’t changed yet.

Myth #1: Schools need to be evaluated like businesses:

Product Testing Assessments comment

Just because some great business strategies have been positively applied to school administration does not mean all of them can or should be. In the above comment, the writer complains about the lack of “product testing” for the new performance assessments given at a district.  However, let’s consider the logistics here.  Businesses can try out ideas and products on test subjects, and if they flop, they can bring in their test subjects for another try.  Schools have no such luxury; their sample groups don’t get to repeat their 4th grade end-of-year assessments–they just move on to 5th grade.  In the end, it takes bold schools like this one in Kentucky, this group in New York, or this district in Colorado to pioneer and make way for change for the rest of us.

Myth #2: When Adopting New Strategies, the Entire District Must Shift All at Once:

As the district experiments with performance based assessments, it’s finding it an easy transition in elementary school, but much harder in the older grades. “The poor middle school and high school students have already been acclimated to this way of thinking, so to give them a performance test is agony,” Morgan said. Those “remedial thinking skills” are what Douglas County hopes to prevent for the next group of students. (“Can Schools Be Held Accountable Without Standardized Tests?“)

The above excerpt makes a very valid point–after all, we spend years training students to memorize and regurgitate content for standardized testing.  Can we blame kids if they’re a bit rusty when we suddenly ask them to access their neglected critical thinking and problem solving skills in 10th grade?

We suggest that new alternative assessment procedures be introduced in younger grades to acclimate students over time, rather than going for district or statewide plunges.  This would give us a better idea of the assessment system’s effectiveness.

Myth #3: Parents can gain more insight into their students’ learning from the quantitative feedback of standardized tests than qualitative feedback:

FB comment on testing

The above comment reveals two problems. One, the parent doesn’t seem to understand that his/her son wasn’t being tested based on opinions–rather, he was being tested on how well he could write an opinion essay. And two, what if his performance was based on someone’s opinion?  More specifically, what if parents had to rely more on teachers’ anecdotal notes and feedback than on scores from standardized tests? Do we really trust a bunch of figures generated in stressful, once-yearly conditions more than insights from a professional who spends an entire year working closely with children? Furthermore, once parents receive those solid numbers from standardized tests, do they even know what exactly it is they’re looking for to “know where you need to work on improving?”

Myth #4: Assessments provide accountability for schools–especially low demographic ones:

Without standardized testing—and lacking any other basis for comparison in their own educational experience—the students’ families had no way of knowing what I had assumed was obvious: that eighth graders on the other side of town were well past working on multisyllabic words or improper fractions. They had no way of knowing that their hardworking, solid-GPA kids were already far behind. (“The Good in Standardized Testing”)

Later in the same article, the author provided suggestions to use tests “for research, not judgement.”  She gave excellent suggestions for improving the approach, like random, testing on small groups throughout the year, and clearly seems to value tests with more substance. However, even when it comes to using the numbers for research, there still remain major shortcomings that affect the poorest schools–schools that can’t afford books from which the multiple choice questions are drawn.

Myth #5: Multiple Choice is the Only [or best] Way to Learn About their Learning:

Jasmeet via Flickr
Jasmeet via Flickr

In the end, isn’t the bottom-line for assessments getting students, parents, teachers, and administrators on the same page regarding student learning?  If that’s the case, we need to focus primarily on this objective as we think outside the box to uncover and share student learning. For your consideration:

Photo Credit:

Benjamin Chun via Flickr Creative Commons (featured image)

Jasmeet via Flickr Creative Commons

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Mary Wade

I taught 5th grade at a PYP International Baccalaureate school in Utah for 4 years, and am currently on extended parental leave until my kids start school. In between the roller-coaster adventures of motherhood, I enjoy educational blogging so I can stay in the loop and keep learning! Snapshot favorites: Student voice & choice. Twix bars. Global classrooms. Calvin & Hobbes. Outlandish sewing projects. Teachers learning from teachers. Modeling daring to students.

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