A Parent’s Perspective on Standardized Tests

A recent article in the New York Times led to a short Twitter conversation with @classroomtools about  standardized tests. As Twitter doesn’t really allow for in depth explanations, I thought I would put my reasons for ranting down on electronic paper.

Because I’m not a teacher, I’ve hesitated broadcasting my feelings about standardized tests. But even parents deserve some small voice in this debate about testing.

  • Here’s what I’m not: I’m no longer a teacher. I’m not an administrator, and I don’t work for the schools.
  • Here’s what I am: I’m a former teacher with an MA in Teaching. I have been involved in informal learning experiences, mostly through museums, for 20 years.  Currently, I work for a museum developing online resources for teachers and students. I am a parent of two school age kids. And, I was a master standardized test taker as a kid.

Why did this article infuriate me? It basically said that the one district’s expenditures on technology were a waste because their standardized tests scores hadn’t gone up.  Well, duh. That’s (hopefully) because the schools are teaching kids using more creative, intuitive tools. They are (hopefully) encouraging more thoughtful learning, critical thinking and creative problem solving, rather than teaching to the test. What a stupid way to measure if that district has been successful.

Reasons I do not agree with the standardized testing movement, in no particular order:

Time: My daughter’s 8th grade algebra teacher spent three, yes THREE weeks prepping the kids for the state test. Was this three weeks of review helpful? Probably, yes, there was merit in reviewing the content learned in 7th grade (this class was one year advanced from math standards). Yet, instead of moving ahead in algebra, they spent three weeks, yes, 15 class days, going over how to take tests, what strategies to use, and reviewing content they were hopefully building on anyway. Really? This was good use of their time?

Time, part 2: An elementary librarian told me she calculated how many days her computer labs were busy for testing – meaning students couldn’t do research and creative projects using the labs. A total of 29 days. That’s SIX weeks of school time when the labs were totally unavailable. (Now, if the school had a 1:1 or BYOD program, this wouldn’t matter.  But that’s a different post.)

Reliability: In five years of standardized testing, my daughter’s scores have ranged from the 67th – 98th percentile. What is that supposed to tell us? Probably that one day she hadn’t had enough sleep, that perhaps she didn’t feel like getting the scratch paper out (which she told me once.) We’ve quickly learned that these scores are worthless and tell us nothing.

Accessibility: Many tests are given on the computer. I should be happy about this, right? Well, I was able to preview one company’s online tests. These tests are supposed to be great because they level with the student, eliminating the ceiling for gifted children. That may be – I can’t argue that point. However, I do know that the tests violate many commonly accepted web design standards. (I build websites and accessibility is a major component of my job.)

  • Font size: students were not able to change the font size – a required feature on any website. Ask any teacher about what websites work for kids – they’ll all say that font size makes a big difference.
  • Line length: the text (for the reading sections) was the entire width of the screen. When is the last time you saw a website that put text in one line over the entire width of the screen? They do that for a reason – our eyes have a hard time keeping on one line.
  • Line spacing: the spaces between lines of text was very tight. Again, standard, accessible web design has more white space between lines, rather than less.
  • Paragraph length: the text for reading excerpts was, of course, reproduced exactly as it is in the book. Standard (good) web writing limits paragraphs to about 5 lines. Our eyes have a hard time making distinctions if there are more lines. Reading on a screen is different than reading a book.
  • Contrast: the color of the screen and text had little contrast.

This is just a few things I observed quickly.  Hopefully, later versions of these tests have adjusted these issues. No, they are not technically on a website, but they ARE reading on a screen, and many of the same principles of basic web design and accessibility apply.

Content: I am not arguing that kids shouldn’t know basic skills – reading comprehension, math, science, etc. They need these skills more than ever. Yet, when these tests are so high stakes, the education program naturally gravitates to focusing on that content. There are only so many hours in a day, and it is well-documented that programs such as art, music, phy ed, recess, are being cut. This harms every child: every child needs to move around during the day, every child needs exposure to creative pursuits like art and music. Kids need to be taught creative problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration. Teaching to the standardized testing does none of that.

Teacher bonuses: Teachers deserve bonuses. They deserve far higher pay and way more respect for their professionalism. I taught for a few years, and was not a good teacher. That’s why I left. Those who are good teachers deserve CEO salaries.

That said, I know many schools are tying teacher bonuses to test results.  This naturally means teachers are more motivated to teach so their kids master the tests. In my experience, the best teachers – and the ones the kids learned the most from – were those who taught creatively, not merely focused on tests.

Gifted: Testing for gifted kids seems like it could be a good thing. Yet, not all gifted kids are good at taking tests. I know of one school district that basis qualifying for their gifted program solely on the results of one specific standardized test. I find this horrifying. What about the kid who is gifted at music? writing?  leadership? art? A child with a learning disability who might not test well?

Standardized tests have a definite ceiling, so they really don’t necessarily accurately reflect a child’s true potential. Much more discussion on problems with gifted children and standardized testing can be found through the Minnesota Council for Gifted and Talented and other organizations dedicated to advocacy for gifted children.

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