The idea of education has always been to give a broad base of learning to students. Schools are required to give young minds exposure to reading, writing, and arithmetic. As students get older, the information taught should build on this base to expand learning to history, advanced math, science, and other academic pursuits. What has historically separated a vocational education from a college prep course of study is the inclusion of the many small details that would never appear as a question on a standardized test.
Parents who are concerned about the quality of their child’s education should cringe when teachers announce that the materials that the class is working on is targeted to improve standardized test scores. This should be translated that the school is attempting to make itself look better by spoon feeding the test questions to the students. Perhaps a greater tragedy is that most state boards of education are pushing for schools to do exactly this to enhance the state’s chances of getting more federal aid.
While on the surface, it might appear teaching for a test is designed to cover the material necessary for a good education could be a good thing. The reality is that there are several flaws to this logic when put into real world practice.
1. The amount of material presented to students in classrooms is lessened to emphasize a few key points to improve test scores. Average and below average students will benefit from this because they have less information to process. Above average and gifted students will be held back from ever achieving their potential because of the mediocrity of the information that they are exposed to. Overall, this will mean that any goal of producing brighter and higher achieving young people cannot be reached.
2. Teaching for the standardized tests also limits the way that information is presented. A free society needs people who are able to think outside of the box and in new and innovative ways. This type of education is by design teaching children to think only about those things that test makers have deemed important a decade ago when the test was being constructed.
3. The current way that standardized tests are used does not measure the learning ability of the student. It only measures whether the school system is able to write curriculum that produces good test takers. Forty years ago, these tests were used to see if students were balanced in their abilities to learn the various types of materials presented. Test scores were going to reflect comprehension more than targeted testing. Obviously, this would mean that the test scores would be a lower overall because the tests should challenge top students while letting the less gifted young people still be able to show what they had learned. Scores were used to determine learning level and not teacher evaluations.
4. Letting school systems have copies of the tests years ahead of time compromises the effectiveness of the test as a measuring tool. There is a reason that tests and quizzes are not routinely distributed to students until the day of the test. If students are caught with a test ahead of time it is considered cheating because it is. Unfortunately, state boards of education have decided to teach children that it is alright to cheat if the money involved is big enough.
5. While students who graduated from programs that require testing to get licensed by state boards are regularly given sample questions and study guides, no one would think of giving copies of the state boards to graduating doctors, nurses, or attorneys. No one wants to be operated on by a doctor who cheated on the boards to get licensed. The same is true for being represented by an attorney. Colleges are being asked to take students into their degree programs who have been taught how to make high scores on the ACT and SAT tests. Is this good for society?
In short, the only fix for this problem is to return to standardized tests that are secret to the school systems. Schools must return to teaching the materials that prepare students for a wide range of opportunities instead of teaching them how to know the answers to tests that only really benefit the people who sell them.