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Standardized Tests: Why Bother?

My students just finished their week of standardized tests.  Boy was it a long week.  The kids have been so antsy from all that time testing.  For a teacher, it’s really not all that bad, since I do so little teaching during that week, mostly just review.  And the kids love getting less homework.

But I want to take a moment to examine the purpose and efficacy of standardized tests.

The purpose, of course, is to measure students’ progress against some sort of national or state average, usually to see which schools and/or teachers are doing well and which are under-performing.  The real question is, how good are these tests at accomplishing their stated purpose?

Doing well on a standardized test does have something to do with being smart and a good student.  My freshman year in high school, I took the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam), and aced it without even trying very hard.  (Not to brag.  Okay, I am bragging a little.)  (Never mind that a freshman shouldn’t even be able to pass a high school exit exam.)

But what standardized tests really measure is how good students are at taking tests.

Since the tests are multiple choice, you have a 25% of getting any given question right if you just blindly guess.  That probably goes up to at least 50% if you just answer everything with “C” (make sure it’s not a true or false question, though!).

I was really good at test taking in school, especially multiple choice tests.  I was a master at working backwards (figuring out what the right answer was by using the given choices).  I had created a more sophisticated guessing strategy than just putting “C” (designate a guess column based upon which one seems to have the most answers, usually B or C).

On a standardized math test, I think it was the now-defunct Golden State Examination (GSE), I didn’t even understand the questions, let alone how to answer them.  I did little more than make pretty patterns on my Scantron, I was so clueless.

I scored above average.

So the scores on a standardized test need to be taken with a grain of salt (or two or three.  Hundred.)  But they do serve a purpose.

I approach standardized test scores much the same way I do grades (see my earlier post, Do Grades Matter?): any given test score isn’t really all that important.  Any little thing can make a kid blow a test (not feeling well, didn’t have enough sleep, skipped breakfast, upset from being yelled at, had a fight with the BFF, etc.), but a general trend is important.

Teachers get pretty good at predicting how well students will do on tests.  Good students do well; poor students do poorly.  It’s the tests where kids who do really poorly in school but really well on tests, or vice versa, that show a teacher who might need some extra help to succeed.

All in all, I do think we should have standardized tests, mostly because there does need to be some standard we hold for all students.  That said, the tests need to be representative of the curriculum, or the test won’t be worth anything.

I realize I didn’t make much of a point with this post; mostly I just related some of my own experiences.  But standardized testing is a very worth topic!  Please leave your own experiences and/or opinions in the comments!

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3 Comments

  1. Mikey G says:

    Note that Finland, which tests in the top three in international test indicators (with Singapore and Taiwan) has only one standardized test during a child’s education (high school exit exam). Teachers some time use this fact to argue against standardized tests. But in Finland principals have the ability to remove bad teachers… not a fact used by teachers.

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