Tuesday, November 29, 2011

20 Reasons Why Standardized Testing Is Crap

If policymakers, institutions and educators want to keep using standardized tests in the alleged service of elementary, middle school, secondary and tertiary students, considerable reform needs implementing, immediately. The standardized testing system's current incarnation raises far more eyebrows and ire than bright-eyed, bushy-tailed pillars of future progress. Research reveals some of the damages done thus far, so citizens — children, parents, educators, administrators, and what few politicians actually care — must read, comprehend, discuss and eventually demand and tailor important changes around. Either de-emphasize their importance and analyze student and teacher success through a wider, far more accommodating lens, or allow them to remain the cornerstone after jettisoning the biases and restrictions wreaking more harm than good. As everything stands now, though, most exams just aren't making the grade. To follow are some reasons that many believe standardized testing is crap.

  1. Teaching to the test

    Some educators, parents and students love the concept of "teaching to the test," others absolutely despise it. Critics typically cite the strategy as the paramount example of why standardized tests either need de-emphasis, reform or utter eradication, and they certainly make reasonable points. While some educators find it easy to just line up their syllabi with content and call it a day, findings illustrate that doing so actually proves counter to educational goals. University of Manitoba's study ultimately encourages "curriculum learning" over its rote counterpart, as it means "students will be able to engage in authentic" content rather than persistently memorizing and regurgitating information.
  2. The language bias

    Even hyper-intelligent, promising students can still end up with inadequate to poor standardized test scores if they struggle with reading English. And no, that doesn't mean "they just aren't trying hard enough:" everyone's language acquisition abilities differ. Gifted kids and teens whose English skills need some tweaking might very well end up with results nowhere near indicative of their true talents and potential.
  3. The culture bias

    Some test questions, such as a controversial New York State Regents Exam query supporting British imperialism on the African continent, tend to reflect mainstream cultural bias. And for students outside this milieu, this might cause some pretty obvious issues. Students who feel as if the content stereotypes or otherwise marginalizes them along cultural, racial or ethnic lines perform worse than their catered-to peers. This might tie into the self-fulfilling prophecy model, where the undermined decide to meet low expectations rather than overcome them.
  4. The learning disability bias

    Though students with diagnosed learning disabilities are required to have concessions made to meet their needs, that doesn't necessarily mean they won't encounter any relevant setbacks. And those whose parents, teachers, administrators or doctors never even noticed (or diagnosed, as the case may be) a serious medical issue … well … suffice to say, that isn't exactly a cookies and pie scenario, either. Learning disabilities have squat to do with intelligence, but they potentially wreak havoc on performance when inadequately addressed. As with linguistic and cultural marginalization, poorly-accommodated or undiagnosed special needs students end up significantly disadvantaged, especially since …
  5. … they're waaaaay too important on college applications

    Forget those extracurricular activities, AP classes, community service, awards and four grueling years of soul-crushing secondary school! College admissions offices consider the SAT and ACT scores a quick, all-too-easy shortcut to determining who they want. Yes, despite knowing that so very many kids taking them must grapple against biases and disadvantages! Not to mention how so many art departments, for some reason, care a little too much about math scores. Fortunately, some deans — such as Tufts' Robert Sternberg — realize this narrow approach oftentimes isolates extremely gifted, promising applicants. Instead of dropping all their eggs in the restrictive standardized testing basket, the school asks for creative essays, designs or inventions.
  6. The stress

    Intelligent kids don't need marginalization along linguistic, cultural or ability lines to suffer from lower standardized test scores than their talents deserve. Because so many schools, administrators and teachers shove these exams' overinflated importance into students' heads from the beginning, it probably shocks nobody that this approach imbues them with excessive stress and anxiety. And a stressed, anxious test subject isn't exactly the most successful test subject. Especially not at seven or eight in the morning. Once again, factors beyond a student's control might very well negatively compromise his and/or her academic future. All because a few little tests dictate pretty much everything.
  7. Underprivileged schools end up even more underfunded

    Although President Barack Obama hopes to instill some flexibility and equal opportunities in the No Child Left Behind Act, its original incarnation only widened the achievement gap along economic lines. Under the legislation, school district funding correlates with standardized test scores. The better they perform, the more money they receive. Which is a fantastic idea: for wealthier regions where most veteran teachers eventually flee, anyways. More financially depressed areas — the ones needing more resources and qualified staff — continue floundering because they lack what's necessary to get ahead. Even if these disadvantaged schools burst at the walls with promising intellects, inexperienced, unqualified teachers might very well hinder their test scores if syllabi don't match up just so. One doesn't need sociology or political science experience to understand the heavy social and economic ramifications behind keeping students in an underprivileged cycle and denying them advancement and educational opportunities.
  8. Some kids just don't test well

    As most preceding arguments have already explicitly outlined, every student approaches education in a different way. It isn't some sort of nonconformist raging against the machine conspiracy: it's pretty much common knowledge that all people possess their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses (thanks, nature and nurture!). In reality, where most individuals don't always neatly fit behind painstakingly crafted labels, some kids simply don't perform well on tests. Even if their assignments otherwise come out perfect, their exam scores compromise overall grades. Such a phenomenon doesn't even have to stem from cultural, linguistic, ability, stress and anxiety or economic factors, either. Perfection is impossible, and some kids and teens find themselves wired towards lower test scores. That doesn't render them any less intelligent, talented or promising than their peers, but since the SAT and ACT reign supreme, tough cookies for them!
  9. They squash and marginalize creativity and critical thinking

    Rote learning undoubtedly has its place as an educational facet, but shouldn't exactly stand as the be-all, end-all of strategies. But standardized exams and the "teaching to the test" ideology end up forcing memorization assignment after memorization assignment after memorization assignment. Thus, such skills end up so emphasized, the rest all end up nutrient-deprived. Not only does this marginalize students struggling with memory issues (or, more commonly, possess strength in other intelligence areas), it also squelches creative and critical thinking abilities. Just because a kid can memorize like a champ doesn't mean he and/or she actually knows how to apply the information to real situations. Critical thinking skills are an absolute necessity when processing and learning from information. And thanks to a preoccupation with competing with other country's graduates creative and artistic inclinations already receive minuscule care, funding or acknowledgment: unless a student pursues a field related to business and finance, law, athletics or the "hard" and applied sciences, America often considers him and/or her useless and extraneous. Especially because such talents can't exactly be measured using a standardized test, which many find a scary and intimidating prospect indeed.
  10. Students can pass, even if they fail

    For example, on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), a student answering more than half the questions wrong will still earn a passing grade. Not because of some "EVERYONE'S A WINNER!!!" campaign to encourage self-esteem, but rather because districts want money. Fudging the scores means wringing as much NCLB funding as possible and slipping stealthily around accountability standards. And, as per usual, the students themselves suffer most from these ill-advised manipulations. When they pass despite failing, kids can't apply what few critical thinking skills they're taught to analyze their academic strengths and weaknesses. Even if standardized tests ought not be considered the ultimate scholastic aptitude authority, they do provide one useful glimpse at what subjects and skills need some extra help. Throwing a passing grade their way deprives them of an opportunity to objectively explore overall performance as well as incentives to improve shortcomings. If the district passes them anyway, it negates the value of hard work and perseverance, both of which are absolutely crucial traits once they hit the real world. But apparently short-term gains are apparently well worth the long-term consequences of shipping ill-prepared kids off to colleges and careers.
  1. Cheating schools gain the advantage

    Just because districts, teachers and administrators cheat the standardized testing system doesn't exactly mean they'll get caught. Atlanta Public Schools, as of publication time, might very well currently hold the record for America's most widespread academic scandal. Involving the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test — a standardized exam, of course — and at least 178 education professionals, participants altered scores and questions while intimidating detractors. Investigators cite this as only one example out of dozens. DOZENS. Cheaters never prosper … unless they don't get caught, in which case they steal money from more deserving districts and reap the financial rewards. Even desperate and deprived schools shouldn't resort to such measures, because doing so only renders the situation even worse and unsurprisingly screws over innocent students (both in the guilty district and beyond) more than any other demographic. Most experts believe hefty standardized testing emphasis drives this education-oriented criminal behavior, and shifting the focus to more eclectic, well-rounded classrooms will prove the best deterrent.
  2. It isn't the only valid measure of teacher effectiveness, but districts think so anyway

    Most school districts measure teacher effectiveness based on how well their pupils perform on their good ol' pal Standardized Testing. And some studies show that it does comprise one valid facet of overall success analysis. The operative term here, of course, being "one." Other research points out that because factors well beyond educator control — all of them pertaining to student backgrounds and behaviors — impact scores, they shouldn't be held as accountable if or when they come into play. Like the classroom itself, a great teacher boasts excellent well-roundedness and flexibility towards varied learning styles and ability levels, among other talents. Factors which exams scores can't exactly measure. Few believe standardized test success needs complete jettisoning from evaluations, but schools should consider them an element, not a complete answer.
  3. Lower graduation rates

    Public high schools in Texas watch around 135,000 students — many of them minorities and non-native English speakers — quit high school every year. Researchers blame No Child Left Behind and its over reliance on biased standardized exams and the resulting accountability issues. Increasingly rigid classroom structures only reinforce marginalization rather than address it, and as a result, students drop out once the pressure grows too anxious and stressful. This runs completely counter to public education's point just a little bit. Pushing out a mass exodus of "low achievers" through "teaching to the test" tactics means inflated standardized test scores, and therefore more NCLB funding. It's all money, not genuinely nurturing the next generation of workers and thinkers who will ostensibly push society forward.
  4. And those high dropout rates pack up prisons

    On the surface, connecting standardized testing and prison demographics sounds hyperbolic and overreaching. But the former directly contributes to heightened dropout rates, and in turn, high dropout rates lead to increased crime rates, so their relationship isn't nearly as tenuous as it initially sounds. Individuals marginalized in the education system, particularly minorities and the disabled, are more likely to drop out, turn to criminal behavior as a coping mechanism, and end up jailed. And schools want them gone anyway, as low-performing students (or those with few incentives to live up to their true academic potential) bring down overall test scores and NCLB funding along with them. Once again, education's ostensible goals end up shunted to the side because dollars take precedence. Only this time, it victimizes both isolated students and anyone they may hurt, maim or kill after dropping out.
  5. Prep classes and tutoring exploit parents' wallets

    Exam prep and tutoring rakes in about $2.5 billion annually, but their providences remain largely negligible. Parents shell out, on average, $1,100 per class and $100 to $200 an hour for tutoring, which only raises SAT scores by about 30 points and tack on a whopping less than one onto the ACTs. Moms and dads outside the education sector can't really be blamed for trying to give their kids an advantage. After all, college admissions are just as ruthless, competitive, frustrating and occasionally demoralizing as dating and job hunting. Most of them want what's best for the students, not bragging rights. And companies offering these services prey on that vulnerability, sometimes using sketchy tactics, like the ever-popular super-difficult mock test artificially inflating real gains. Thanks to standardized tests' prolificacy and mountainous importance, an entire industry sprang up specifically to financially drain well-meaning parents, money which could go towards ridiculously mounting college expenses or improving community schools instead.
  6. They're both usually required and pricey

    Fortunately, many — if not most — standardized tests offer waivers (the constantly-looming SAT, for example) for more economically deprived families. But for those just above the cutoff, paying up might still cause a significant fiscal dent, especially if the household contains multiple students or one needing to take multiple exams and/or a single exam multiple times. Forty-nine dollars, what one SAT costs for one American student ($78 for their international counterparts, except in India and Pakistan, where it's $99), is a lot of money to struggling families unqualified for waivers. Add in the ACT and AP exams (when applicable) and that's some serious expenditure expectations before students even ship their college applications, which also cost money! If schools and policymakers relax standardized test importance, this could alleviate some of these households' fiscal burdens. Offering viable, cheaper alternatives, for example, or exploring strategies lowering the price tag while maintaining quality and efficacy. As it now stands, though, low-income-but-unqualified parents and students find themselves crippled beneath mounting costs. They have to pay up if they sincerely hope their children will attain a worthwhile college education; and the inability to do so severely compromises their high schoolers' future, all over a factor most of them can't exactly help.
  7. The GRE doesn't exactly predict graduate school success

    Researchers at Cornell and Yale (as well as University of South Florida) discovered no correlation existing between strong GRE scores and strong graduate school GPAs. In fact, any promise indicated on the exam usually faded after the first year — and if any persisted, it disappeared by the second. The USF study opined on how lower scorers might actually enjoy a higher retention and graduation rate (which makes a school look great!) than their upper-level peers. Individuals with higher scores could possibly be more likely to drop out and pursue a promising career lead.
  8. GRE Subject Exams discriminate along emphases and foci lines

    Undergraduates hoping to earn their master's and doctorate degrees might want to avoid an emphasis or a focus if they see a GRE Subject Exam in their near futures! There's nothing quite like the feeling of intently studying, say, ancient Japanese texts and discovering that requiredLiterature in English test asks about almost nothing but British and American authors! And The Bible! Even well past the SAT and ACT stage, standardized testing still reflects some good old-fashioned cultural bias. And since so many graduate studies programs consider them compulsory, students pretty much have no choice but to take classes based on what raises their scores instead of their academic passions. Not every GRE Subject Exam will necessarily prove so egregious (or obvious) in its leanings, of course, but to some extent they all manage to forcibly pigeonhole and influence undergraduates desiring a graduate education. Energy and time which could be spent on a subject they love and might actually progress, not one the test pushes.
  9. Grading errors

    Sometimes, student backgrounds end up holding no influence over eventual scores at all, probably because the ones assigned to grade them totally screwed up. Errors are obviously inevitable in all things, but some standardized testing companies possess disconcerting — if not outright dubious — records. For example, NCS Pearson's history of missing, delayed, miscalculated and just plain wrong scores dates back to at least 1998. And these aren't exactly isolated incidents, either. The company distributes many state-exclusive exams, and late grades could easily mean late applications. Poorly-calculated grades damage students, schools and districts alike, compromising both admissions chances and funding. What's particularly depressing about all this is that the list linked earlier only showcases what investigators know. More minor offenses may not have even passed over anyone's radar, including NCS Pearson itself, and still altered the ultimate recipients' standings. But, as Boston College warns, grading errors actually exist as disconcertingly systemic issues NOT relegated to only one company.
  10. Computerized tests might alter scores

    Although humans and technology have come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good, discrepancies still exist between pencil-and-paper and computer-based exams. Kids who enjoy regular computer access at home and/or school hold a distinct advantage over their peers going without. But even beyond unfortunate socioeconomic biases, techie tests might actually result in compromised scores, regardless of the students' skills and backgrounds. The one-question-at-a-time structure oftentimes doesn't allow them to review answers, and digital formatting proves far more conducive to cheating. Plus, many students practice on traditional pencil-and-paper exams, only to find themselves completely thrown off course once plopped down in front of a monitor. So scores do fluctuate based on how these tests were taken, either bolstering or hindering depending on completely external factors.


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