Standardized Testing: a summary of issues

A recent tweet posted by an educator raised the question as to whether standardized testing is used to support the practice of assigning the teachers who seem most highly skilled to the students with the highest performance records. This practice has been called out by the NCTM as an inequitable practice,* and it makes sense to include the issue of what distinguishes a “highly skilled teacher” when discussing the pros and cons of standardized testing.

I believe few educators would dispute the importance of having standards and assessing students to determine whether students have mastered them. I am a proponent of comparatively assessing students on a national, even international level. Too many parents are unaware that “proficient” on a standardized test in one state can mean their child is several grade levels behind students in a neighboring state. States often soften the status of “not proficient” by assigning classifications such as “basic” which lead parents into falsely thinking their student “at least know the basics.” Good assessments should be very clear as to what is assessed and where each student stands in terms of mastering standards. SBAC & PARCC were in a good position to provide national comparisons before the anti-Common Core forces intimidated states into backing out. Until someone can explain to parents that it’s better to have consistent standards and testing than being duped into thinking everything is fine by their state’s department of education, I don’t see that problem being fixed.

Great assessments could shine lights onto which teachers are successfully using research-based strategies and increasing students’ problem mastery and retention over time. I am also a proponent of scrutinizing research and pedagogy to move teachers from silos to stellar teamwork instead of the typical power drivers: majority and seniority. Research provides insights as to what kinds of strategies are likely to be effective and what kinds of strategies tend to be less effective. But individual teachers apply particular strategies with varying degrees of success. Good assessments could help identify teachers who are successfully applying research-based strategies.

Here is what I see as some of the problems surrounding standardized testing and evaluating teachers:

  • Short-term test results can detract from a more important story. In my own study of 476 Algebra I students, those who had the highest scores on their multiple choice final exam had the lowest rates of retention, resulting in virtually insignificant differences 3-8 months later. Classes of students with lower final exam scores, later slightly out performed classes with higher scores on a practice ACT test. In other words, teachers who get fantastic short-term scores may be doing so at the neglect of teaching for concept and retention.
  • Employers have been asking us to develop collaborative (soft) problem-solving skills, (instead of training students to use a formula to generate the answer at the back of the book). Many standardized tests do not assess true “problem-solving” skills. Collaborative problem-solving skills are arguably best accomplished in semi-permanent collaborative teams with assigned roles. The mismatch between goals and pedagogy might best be seen by the number of teachers that are still using “traditional” textbooks and mostly direct instruction. I suspect few math teachers have read the GAIMME report to understand what problem-solving entails.
  • If short-term recall on standardized tests drives the pedagogy, then force-feeding shallow ideas and procedures will continue to be the norm; and all those students will continue to be disadvantaged in post K-12 pursuits.
  • Similarly, if immediate comparisons are made between teachers who are stepping into collaborative learning with teachers who continue to lecture, the lecturers may appear more successful, because a change in pedagogy typically has a significant learning curve. This is particularly true if the students are a challenge to motivate and see collaborative learning as more difficult than passive lectures. “Easy learning” can make students happier because it builds a false sense of confidence, and teachers who try to motivate effortful learning (learning that is deeper and tends toward better retention) may experience pushback from students and parents. Progressive teachers may appear less competent. Unless the parents and administrators are committed to strategies that lead to success beyond K-12, pushback may result in poor relationships between progressive teachers and students.
  • Clarity and transparency in assessments comes with risks: pushback from parents, community, and funding sources. But as far as I can see, any success in turning around the abysmal college completion rates and lack of soft skills can only be expected if we are all on the same page. This means leaders in education, along with the teachers, must help parents connect the dots between what happens in a classroom and what happens after K-12. Parents need to buy into the goals and understand those goals will require learning curves for teachers and buy-in from students. Parents need to understand what the data indicates, exactly what next steps will be to help students who are not assessing at grade level, and what they can do to support the process. A sense of urgency must accompany the call for high standards, assessment, and transparency in reporting.

In summary, standardized testing can result in all sorts of false conclusions. The remedy is to bring parents on board with a transition to research based pedagogy that develops the soft skills and problem-solving skills lacking in so many students post K-12. They need to understand that “easy learning” is not likely to be retained nor transfer well outside of K-12. All this said, it is difficult to imagine any school district or department of education being terribly interested in this with a pandemic going on. In my thinking, it will be 2 years before serious conversations around academic progress resume.

*Catalyzing Change in HS Mathematics,” NCTM pg 21. It might seem logical that the “best and the brightest” teachers would be assigned to the “best and the brightest” students. But “best and the brightest” students will often teach themselves or reach for help where as the less confident students would tend to need more innovative teacher intervention. It could also be argued that the “best and the brightest” students need enrichment beyond what a traditional textbook might supply, which requires innovative teacher supplementation. NCTM suggests that every teacher be given a mix classes: some classes of high-performing students and some classes of behaviorally or otherwise challenged students.

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