Let’s face it, standardized testing has been a white hot topic since the adoption of No Child Left Behind. There have been many voices expressing distaste for testing, even questioning the validity of standardized tests in Minnesota all-together or blaming the standardized test for diluting the quality of education provided to students. This blame on end-of-year comprehensive assessments seems unwarranted.
The Usual Suspects
Perhaps the most common complaint of standardized testing is that it promotes “teaching to the test”. An argument can be made against this statement. Tests are designed to measure student’s subject knowledge on a particular K-12 academic standard as determined by the state. Therefore, teachers are teaching to the academic standards. While it might be frustrating for parents to hear about what likely won’t be taught, solace should be taken in the clear delineation of the important skills that all students should be taught during a school year.
Complaints against standardized tests for not testing critical thinking are not likely to hold up, as well. While there are other routes for assessing critical thinking skills, vastresearch has been completed to determine techniques for writing critical thinkingmultiple-choice test questions. For a few fun non-verbal examples, search the web for “Raven’s Progressive Matrices”.
Limitations with Standardized Testing
There are limits to standardized testing. Test length and cost constrain understanding of student learning, but test developers argue that diminishing returns occur with longer tests. Content in some subjects is hard to test, especially those that require specific skills, such as writing or scientific thinking. Short answer and essay questions could be a viable alternative.
The use, cost, and benefits of short-answer and/or essay test questions are laid out nicely in a summary by Dr. Samuel Livingston, a distinguished scholar working at Educational Testing Services. Constructed response test questions can measure skills that multiple-choice questions cannot, but when scores on the two types of questions are highly related, Dr. Livingston (and others) recommends the use of multiple-choice questions.
Additional factors related to constructed response questions also are weighed: short-answer and essay questions take longer to administer; are more expensive to score; and can be difficult to score because of differences of opinion on such question types.
Prometric, a subsidiary of Educational Testing Services, surveyed 82 test development groups, of those groups 22% used short-answer or essay questions. About 2 of 5 companies used only multiple-choice question, but over half of the groups would like to use additional question types. The top three limitations: cost, technology, and time.
While more affordable than short-answer and essay test questions, multiple choice questions are not cheap. The Handbook of Test Development, considered the go-to book for test developers, states that multiple-choice questions cost between $300 and $1,000 per question to develop. Meaning millions of dollars have been poured into the development of test questions alone. The reason for the high cost is vetting process a test question must endure.
A single question will be reviewed by more than a dozen active educators to determine if the content is appropriate and aligned to standards. The question format will also be scrutinized to assure that it conforms to best practices. A question will also be reviewed by a diverse panel to determine if cultural bias exists in the format of the question. A question might cycle through this process several times or be dropped along the way. A question that makes the cut is then embedded within a test, but not counted towards the final score. The question is then analyzed by test developers to determine if the question is reliable, fair, and valid.
Other Arguments Against Testing
To keep cost down, large testing companies are developing software to automatically score constructed response tests. This is often another complaint of against standardized testing, but it is typically used in tandem with human raters. In the near future, improved artificial intelligence technologies could make short-answer or essay questions viable on state assessments.
Some believe standardized testing is not meant to be high-stakes for teachers. Most experts agree with this, including Minnesota policy makers. In fact, the State of Minnesota weighs only 35% of it’s pilot teacher evaluation system to test scores. Also included are teacher practice ratings consisting of four domains: planning, instruction, environment, and professionalism; and results from a student engagement survey.
Accountability & Transparency
Standardized tests are meant to hold educators accountable to the same standard. Without it, all districts, schools and teachers could produce favorable results. In this way, standardized tests set a bar in which all schools are held accountable.
When these scores are published publically, it puts pressure on districts and schools to perform to the standard. This is tough for historically poor performing schools, but with metrics that also measure student growth from year-to-year, more vivid descriptions and definitions of success schools are available. These measures can also identify schools that are closing or promoting the achievement gap.
Historically, research has shown that tests have had a positive effect on student achievement and are especially useful when feedback is provided. But National Research Council’s study on testing suggests that the testing policies have contributed no negative effects and, in some cases, small improvements in educational outcomes above-and-beyond all other features in the current educational landscape. Even distain for testing seems to be a myth, as several polls have shown that parents and teacherssupport testing.
While standardized testing can still be improved, there is no reason hold multiple-choice tests culpable for educational inadequacies. Standardized tests minimize bias and put all students on the same metric. Test developers are measuring higher-order thinking of state standards with the resources available. And with schools completing standardized tests across Minnesota, all educators are held accountable for progressing student achievement.