How Did Standardized Tests Become Evil?
Standardized test used to be a good thing. They showed parents where their kid was in relation to other kids. They gave teachers a picture of what they taught well and what they needed to improve. They gave principals a sense of how the school was performing in general. They were simply a measure, one of many measures. Some schools and teachers used them wisely; others went through the motions or simply ignored them.
Then came Accountability, as if teachers and administrators hadn’t been accountable at all up to this point. Standardized tests became known as “high stakes” because decisions about kids’ lives suddenly depended upon them. Third graders could be retained for a whole year of their lives if they didn’t pass an arbitrary cut-off point, which in my experience, was a moving target. Some students were kept from graduating if they didn’t hit an arbitrary mark on a state test. Suddenly standardized tests went from being a yearly tradition to a high hurdle that kids had to clear in order to move on with their lives.
As a result of high stakes testing, standardized tests became serious and expensive business. Teachers began to teach to the test and test taking became a subject in itself that superseded all others during the run-up to the tests. Test results for schools were now big news, published in your local paper and online.
At that point people began to believe that perhaps they were punishing the kids for the adults’ shortcomings, so the decision was made to use standardized tests in yet another way: to decide whether a given teacher was good enough to keep her job. So now we have kids who fail and adults who fail as well. All because good old standardized tests had morphed into an all-powerful monster.
Now we’ve come full circle. The Miami Herald reports that a coalition of teachers is urging parents to allow their kids to opt out of standardized tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test required for graduation. The group says they have supporters in all 50 states, and members believe that parents have the right to decide whether their children should be subjected to tests. State education officials, predictably maintain that state law requires all kids to participate in state tests.
Well, here’s the deal: The original use of standardized tests has been perverted. On the basis of a few hours of testing, huge decisions are made that affect people’s lives. No third grader should have to repeat an entire year of third grade because he can’t read at the third grade level. Instead, he should receive intensive work to bring him up to speed in reading or whatever the particular weakness is.
And no teacher should lose her job on the basis of a couple years’ test scores without the same kind of remediation.
Does the state have the right to make your child sit for tests? Remains to be seen. Meanwhile some of us are applauding efforts to force the monster back to his cave. Tests, after all, are just tools, not the grand arbiter of all things academic.