Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why I Don't Like Standardized Tests

Guest post by Cathy Earle
As an educator, I am sometimes called upon to teach children test preparation skills. I do so because these particular children are going to have to take a particular test – it's a reality. However, the first step of my test prep lesson is to tell the children that I don't like standardized tests, especially high-stakes tests. I don't believe they should have to take them, and, I tell them, I didn't subject my own kids to them.

Here are my major reasons for my antipathy toward standardized tests:

1. Standardized tests measure only certain kinds of knowledge or abilities -- arguably the lowest level and least important. They don't do a great job of measuring higher level thinking skills or creativity, and they say nothing about whether or not students are able to solve real-world problems, let alone whether or not students are willing to read for information or enjoyment.

2. Standardized tests are very much open to cheating, and with high stakes testing, the motivation to cheat is high.

3. Standardized tests encourage something that, though it is not considered cheating, completely undermines any knowledge one might gain about a learner, institution or system: test prep. Are we testing which kids have skills and which schools produce knowledgeable students, or are we testing who spends the most time and money on preparation for the tests? Test prep undercuts the entire education system, since as tests proliferate, more and more time is spent on preparation for tests, to the detriment of everything worthwhile.

4. Standardized tests cause anxiety--sometimes extreme anxiety---in many test-takers, thus reducing any useful knowledge about their knowledge or abilities. Since we aren't going to learn useful things about these kids through the scores, why put them through the pain?

5. Standardized tests give artificially low scores for kids who are late readers but who know a lot and are highly intelligent. Ditto late bloomers in math. (Research shows that late formal academics is better for kids, at any rate, so I shouldn't even be calling these kids "late"!) Thus, testing in elementary grades can be especially harmful as it doesn't give kids time to develop skills according to their own developmental schedule.

6. Standardized tests give artificially low scores for kids who aren't detail oriented and who find carefully filling in bubbles, completely erasing changed answers, keeping track of item numbers, and other niggly details almost impossible to care about, let alone accomplish. Testing also punishes with low scores the wiggly kids who need to move in order to think. Many of these kids are incredibly bright!

7. Standardized tests are unfair to people from minority cultures or unusual backgrounds. Also, many test items are extremely ambiguous or open to multiple interpretations, which is another way of being unfair. Of course, test makers assure us that they have thought of all of this and have worked hard to solve these problems. But I've worked with the most up-to-date materials, and there are still a lot of problems.

8. If we trusted parents, teachers, and administrators to care about kids, work hard on behalf of kids, help kids learn, work to solve problems, and communicate with each other regarding the kids' progress, we wouldn't need standardized tests. If we can't trust school personnel to do these things, we can't trust them with the kids, at all! We as a nation don't actually need to track, compare, rank, and label every student! Ditto teachers, schools, and districts.

9. Adults who are certain that standardized tests are imperative for children should let kids off the hook and go ahead and set up high-stakes testing in their business, churches, organizations, and homes. Measure away! Label and rank your workers, and be sure to publish the scores. Give your spouse spending money based on test scores! Keep your rabbi and cantor, or club president and committee leaders, or board of directors accountable by testing them. All of this would be incredibly unhelpful and counter-productive, of course--but it is, as well, for kids!

10. We know a lot about what learners need - and we should provide those things and then TRUST that learning is happening. Learning is stunted or even stopped by constant or intrusive evaluation. Paraphrasing John Holt, who paraphrased an unnamed father: If a gardener planted carrots and provided the right amounts of minerals and air in the soil, sunlight, and water -- but then, in his anxiety over his crop, dug up the baby carrots every day and measured them to make sure they were growing -- well, the farmer might not get a crop of carrots at all! If some of the carrots still grew despite all the digging up and replanting, they would probably be smaller and less straight than if the farmer had just let them grow. In the same way, we should provide good learning environments for children, but then trust them and let them grow.

Cathy Earle is an educator who has taught in public schools and a variety of private venues. She was a curriculum lab director at Orange Unified School District and a managing editor for American Learning Corporation, where she wrote and edited textbooks and a wide variety of learning materials. She has been a freelance education writer working for such clients as The Learning Company, Orange County Department of Education, and Disney Software. She homeschooled her own children from birth to college, using child-led and interest-based methods rather than formal academic techniques. Her daughters are now all grown, and it is nice to be able to report that “it all turned out fine”: Two have graduated with honors from four-year colleges, and one of these has gone on to earn an advanced degree. The youngest daughter, just 19, is a professional dancer for Holland America Cruise Line.

Her blog for children, Every Day Is Special, can be found at http://every-day-is-special.blogspot.com/.


  1. You have made many excellent points here. I will comment on your 6th point first. We are told over and over again as educators how important differentiation is and how our instruction should reflect the needs and learning styles of all of our students. Yet, the standardized tests that their learning is measured by does not in any way reflect these practices. There are no visuals and there is nothing build into these assessments that takes into account the many "wiggly" kids in today's classrooms.

    In number 7, you brought up another point that I can really relate to. The past two years I taught in a school that has a large population of Asian Americans. During the standardized testing in 3rd grade, there was a question that said, "Which of these would be an appropriate measurement for an ear of corn?". I had about 7 different students in my room ask me what an ear of corn was, and I could not even help them! This is a perfect example of the cultural bias in these standardized tests, and I do not see any possible way to ensure that these tests have absolutely no bias.

    Lastly, I love what you had to say in number 8. This could not be more true, and it is truly sad. Why can't we just trust that educators are doing everything possible to meet their students' needs and preparing them for their futures?!

  2. Interesting that testing and test results (often misrepresented and used selectively to highlight failures and shortcomings), standardized tests, benchmark testing, "growth models" (which require more testing and data collection in order to track progress towards benchmarks generated by testing data)...and so on and so on...ALL THIS has consumed schools. And our democratically elected officials have taken it upon themselves and/or appointed non-educator lackeys and/or wealthy donors to help them determine which students can generate profit for them and how.

    The narrative that public education and teachers have failed us (based on purposefully bad/invalid testing)is the straw man argument that our leaders are facilitating. Our society is inequitable and unfair. It supports the lifestyles of wealthy speculators and the uppermost classes of the wealthy with the work and over-consumption of the under-classes.

    We are told it is about competition and capitalism, and that it is the obligation of our schools to make students competitive in the market, while "the market" is rigged to not allow that kind of access. Schools have been over-mandated and underfunded for too long, and the market has pumped our children full of trashy food, trashy media, and unreal expectations of what they should be able to have (and what they need to do to get it...which is not much).

    Teachers are expected to ameliorate these conditions, and now to get students "career and college ready". Citizens began to suffer as the entitlement of the already wealthy and entitled began. As suffering and floundering of our economy reared it's ugly head, and people began to notice that the chubby,neatly manicured fingers pointed to the public workers calling for "shared sacrifice" weren't really sharing the sacrifice...that's when the straw man was created.

    They don't want it to be about the exploitation of the market and the people. They have created a test industry to identify their scapegoats and make them money at the same time.