The Danger of Standardized Tests

For all the talk in Washington about the need to decentralize power and give authority to the states, in one of the core areas of state and local responsibility — education — there is a growing and dangerous sentiment among top officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties in favor of a new federal mandate: mandatory standardized testing of students and teachers.
It is obvious that our educational system is in need of significant improvement, but standardized tests won’t help. In fact, they are sure to: exacerbate the worst educational tendencies toward rote memorization, bore students and turn them off to reading and intellectual engagement, and worsen racial disparities in the educational system.

Standardized tests fail to measure creativity, thoughtfulness, perceptiveness, judgment, diligence, critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving or imagination — to name just a few attributes of genuine intelligence. What they do reward is thinking and memorization skills that have little importance in the world of work, higher education, family or citizenship.

Exacerbating the problem, the tests exhibit persistent racial and gender bias, disadvantaging people of color, girls and women in competitive spheres from primary to graduate school.

Tests which measure narrow and unimportant learning skills — perhaps even penalizing those who think outside conventional boundaries — and also suffer from racial and gender bias should have no place in our educational system.

Despite reams of documentation — including the groundbreakingreport The Reign of ETS, published two decades ago — on how they are ineffective, biased and counterproductive, standardized tests are finding ever-increasing usage. Beginning at very young ages, children throughout their educational careers are increasingly forced to pass standardized tests as a prerequisite to advancement. Access to advanced classes and later to colleges and graduate schools are overly dependent on standardized test performance.

The result is a corrupted educational system, in which teachers teach for tests, pushing memorization and multiple-choice skill-building, rather than foster children’s critical thinking abilities. Those students who do poorly on tests — disproportionately children of color and children from low-income families — are vectored into special education, remedial or lower-level classes in which they are too frequently presented with boring and unchallenging material — ensuring that their academic performance will lag.

Teacher tests, which have little if any correlation with actual teaching ability but are also gaining in popularity, block tens of thousands of teachers of color from teaching in primary and secondary schools. African American teachers who do pass the tests score lower than whites on average, but beginning African American teachers earn higher performance ratings than their white counterparts, according to “The Effects of Competency Testing on the Supply of Minority Teachers,” by Dr. G. Pritchy Smith, professor at the University of North Florida.

The expansive utilization of standardized tests in more and more educational and other spheres is due, to a considerable extent, to the effective marketing of their fake objectivity by the Educational Testing Service and other testing companies. It also reflects a tragically misguided push by the Clinton/Gore administration to increase the use of testing as a facile marker for educational “reform.”

As a first step, there should be a national ban on the use of “high stakes” standardized tests, where standardized tests are used as the sole measure to determine grade advancement, graduation, tracking or other decisions. Federal incentives should encourage the progressive and rapid diminishment of reliance on tests. We can instead assess students primarily through integrated methods, based in the classroom, including informal interviews, projects, classroom tests and journals.

We certainly need a national initiatives to promote educational reform — to engage students in critical thinking, to transmit citizenship skills that involve the application of classroom learning to the real-world challenges of building a more just and democratic society, to devote sufficient resources to ensure that schools are well maintained, to lower student-teacher ratios and more. But we don’t need failed and discredited misnamed reforms that get in the way of authentic teaching.
It is time to end the obsession in Washington and elsewhere with standardized tests. To get more information on standardized tests, contact the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fair Test) at 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139, 617-864-4810, www.fairtest.org.

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