Thursday, August 18, 2011

Standardized Test Scores: Take With a Grain of Salt

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Another school year is on the horizon, and with the start of a new year comes another round of standardized testing for our students. As a teacher and a parent of a college-bound student, I am all-too-well aware of this. There is so much importance attached to students doing well on standardized tests – for their state, for their school, for their teachers, for their futures, for themselves – that it seems inevitable for angst to follow. I caution all parents and their children to take this high-stakes testing seriously but also take the results with a grain of salt.

Education expert Alfie Kohn wrote extensively about the pitfalls of standardized testing in 2000
, and more than a decade later, he still has many valid points. In this article, he makes some important points to consider, including
• Standardized test scores often measure superficial thinking. It is difficult to measure higher-order thinking skills on a multiple-choice test scored by a machine.
• Many experts disapprove of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old. There is such a wild variance in children’s learning at young ages.
• Many experts disapprove of basing an important decision (like promotion to the next grade level, graduation, or college admission) on the results of a single test. This is a pretty small data set to use for making such impactful decisions about a child’s future.

Leigh Pretnar Cousins writes about the impact that test scores can have on a child’s self-esteem. The scores, whether good or bad, are important to the kids, even if they say they aren’t. Trust me, the kids are being told directly and/or indirectly that they are important. Kids will wonder if they are smart based on their test scores and the scores of their peers. Please don’t be fooled into thinking the kids won’t compare scores. They will. The kids with good scores will share their results; the rest of the kids will silently compare themselves to those kids. I see it all the time. Schools and states use the kids’ test data to compare themselves nationally and internationally. Even though it is not one particular child’s results being shared individually, the kids know their score is part of the larger scope.

It is easy to find all sorts of information about the problems and issues surrounding standardized tests – how they are created, how they are administered, and how the test scores are used. The website Fair Test: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has devoted itself to these issues. This is a hot topic in education right now; leaders in education like Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee, the teachers’ unions, and The Gates Foundation all have opinions on how high-stakes test scores should – or should not – be used.

So, here is some advice from an educator/parent to all the parents and kids. This is the same information I tell my students, the parents of my students, and my own child.
• A child is not defined by test scores. No matter what anyone says, a child is always more than a number, a percentile ranking, or a bar on a graph.
• A test score shows how a child did on one particular test on one particular day.
• A test does not measure intelligence; it measures how well the child was able to navigate this kind of test format and use information he was able to recall at that time.
• Many circumstances impact a child’s test scores – the format of the test, the prior knowledge the child has, how hungry the child feels, how tired the child feels, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the chair he is sitting in, the noises in the room or outside the room. The list goes on and on. If one day a child is taking a test on a full stomach in a comfortable chair in a comfortable room, it stands to reason that score will be better than the one coming from the test taken on the day the child came down with strep, skipped breakfast, and shivered in a cold room.
• Students with text anxiety or learning disabilities are rarely going to get anything that could be even close to a score that is considered valid.
• Test formats impact the scores, too. They may all be multiple choice, but factors like the interest level of the reading material on the test, the size of the bubbles to fill in, the number of questions on the test, the use of color or pictures (or lack of), and the length of the test all impact a child’s motivation and effort and therefore the end result.

Please tell your child to always try his best on a standardized test, but explain that good or bad, that one test score doesn’t mean much in terms of the kind of person he or she is.

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