Americas Dependency on Standardized Tests



In an age of endless proposals for educational reform, the solutions to educational problems all too often tend to rely on an idea that is essentially part of the (if not the) problem STANDARDS. The latest craze in educational reform, known as “standards-based reform,” is a far cry from reform; in actuality, it is little more than an oxymoron. A Southern California middle school principal best summed up the problem with standards-based reform when he said:

Standards-based reform’ means that a teacher is able to say to a student: `At the end of the year, or this week, or this lesson, you will be expected to do this, or you will know when this happened, or you will have to perform this.’ It’s a teacher’s expectation of what a kid can do and learn, what kind of benchmark he/she can reach.

Sure, it may sound great compared to the educational path we have been dragging students down for years; but, when all is said and done, “standards-based reform” is a poor attempt to repair the years of damage caused by standardized tests, tracking, and the disregard for diversity among students through the use of a system that is based on the bomb that caused the mass destruction of our nation’s educational system in the first place (i.e., standards).

I. Standards-Based Reform & Standardized Tests

A. Pros

1. Emphasize the OUTCOME rather than the process; what students should learn instead of how they should learn. Shifts the primary focus away from the content of the curriculum and toward what learners will achieve; this allows teachers more freedom in their methods of teaching because they are told what their teaching must achieve rather than how they must teach.

2. Are an improvement compared to the current education in some parts of the nation.
a. Education systems in some parts of the nation are currently so ineffective, virtually any kind of reform would be an improvement.

B. Cons

1. Lack respect for diversity.

a. Students are viewed as numbers rather than as individuals.

b. Create a nationwide standard of learning.

i. create the same learning goals for different students with different interests.
ii. emphasize the notion that everybody needs to learn the same thing

2. Ignore the real problems such as under qualified teachers, understaffing, overcrowding, lack of supplies, inadequate facilities, etc.

3. Linked to “accountability,” which tends to focus on catching teachers and students “failing” so they can be punished.

a. Results in drastic measures being taken by teachers, administration, etc. to improve test scores.

b. Frightening proof:

In Spring 2000, 522 students in Birmingham, Alabama were ‘pushed out’ of a local Birmingham high school right before test time to artificially manipulate the SAT9 scores. Teachers in the area say that individuals involved in this had decent track records, but they were under the threat of state takeover, principals and other administrators/staff members losing jobs, etc. if standardized test scores did not improve. So, their “quick-fix” for the problem was to get rid of students with low scores right before the test. The end result? 5.6% of high school students across Birmingham were administratively withdrawn (against their own will) due to “lack of interest.”

II. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development & Standards/Standardized Tests

A. The Zone of Proximal Development.

1. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is one of the most widely accepted and practiced theories of learning. It states that individuals learn best when they are presented with tasks that are slightly challenging, and then provided with the necessary assistance to complete the tasks. The difference between the individual’s mental age [indicated by the static test] and the level he/she reaches in solving problems with assistance is the zone of his/her proximal development.

a. This level should not be so high as to frustrate the individual or so low as to slow down the individual’s progress, and it should not skip any significant developmental steps.

B. Standards DESTROY the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

1. By ensuring difficulty, ease, or average performance (and thereby causing frustration, slowing down the individual’s progress, or skipping significant developmental steps), creating the same standards or implementing the same standardized test across a set age group essentially destroys the ZPD.

III. Academic Standards & Achievement in the United States Vs. Other Countries

A. Studies show American students’ performance worsens with age.

1. According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), compared to students of other nationalities, the performance of American students decreases drastically between fourth and twelfth grade. The TIMSS consisted of a variety of hands-on tests of science, analyses of textbooks, videotaping of classroom, a Case Study Project, along with numerous other test methods. The following was pulled directly from the results of the study (1995-1999):

a. Fourth-Grade Findings. In both mathematics and science, U.S. fourth-graders performed above the international average. In mathematics, of the 26 participating TIMSS countries, U.S. fourth-graders outperformed students in 12 countries and were outperformed by students in seven countries. In science, U.S. students outperformed students in 19 countries, and were outperformed by students in only one country -Korea. In the six mathematics content areas, U.S. fourth-graders exceeded the international average in five. In the science content areas, U.S. fourth-graders exceeded the international average in all four areas assessed.

b. Eighth-Grade Findings. Data on eighth-grade performance from TIMSS suggests a general improvement in U.S. eighth-grade science scores as compared to a prior 1991 international assessment that placed U.S. students below average, though the tests and the set of participating nations have changed. The TIMSS data, however, show that U.S. eighth-grade students’ mathematics performance remains slightly below the international average. U.S. eighth-grade students scored lower, on average, in mathematics than students in Canada, France, and Japan, and scored about the same as students in England and Germany. In science, eighth grade students from the United States scored higher, on average, than students in France, about the same as students in Canada, England, and Germany, and lower than students in Japan.

c. Twelfth-Grade Findings. The twelfth-grade TIMSS included 21 countries that conducted assessments of their students’ general knowledge in mathematics and science during their last year in secondary school. Japan and other Asian countries that traditionally perform well in mathematics and science did not participate in the twelfth-grade TIMSS. Even with those Asian countries excluded, the United States performed relatively poorly. In the mathematics general knowledge assessment, U.S. twelfth-grade students were outperformed by 14 countries, and outperformed two countries. U.S. students performed the same as students in four other countries. In science, U.S. twelfth-grade students were outperformed by students in 11 countries, and outperformed students in two countries. U.S. students performed the same as students in seven other countries.

B. The United States as compared to Japan (reasons for differences).

1. Education in Japan.

a. In Japan, social promotion is at the heart of schooling. The Japanese Ministry of Education develops national curricular guidelines, which consist of general descriptions of what students are expected to accomplish during each year of schooling. The school administration or individual teacher determines the time and manner in which the material is presented in each classroom. Schools and local boards of education are allowed to modify national curricular guidelines in ways that are believed to be more appropriate at the local level.

b. While the Japanese are aware of differences in ability among individuals, they tend to ignore these differences and, instead, focus on emphasizing that accomplishment can always be increased through the application of greater effort. One Japanese teacher clearly expressed this view in saying, “as far as inborn ability goes, I can’t say it isn’t there, but I say that it doesn’t matter; regardless of whether you have ability, if you persevere, you can get a good outcome.” A Japanese parent put it even more concisely: “Motivation. That’s all that counts. Unless you are a genius, success depends on how hard you are willing to work.”

c. Japanese educators and policy makers have always been strongly against the idea of tracking during the elementary and middle school years. They firmly believe that it is not fair, under any circumstance, to separate students into tracks based on their ability. One fourth-grade teacher in Japan said, “If a school separates students according to ability differences, what the school is doing is discriminating among students. This goes against the school’s basic goal of having students learn as members of a group.”

d. In Japan, students take entrance exams at the end of ninth grade to determine which of two high schools they will attend (there are both vocational and academic high schools). These exams differ greatly from any standardized test in the U.S. because they measure a combination of interest and ability, and they ultimately serve to get the student in the school that is more fitting for him/her. Even though students are not required to attend high school at all in Japan, more than 97% of the students choose to continue their education through the high school years.

2. Education in the United States.

a. Thus far, the U.S. government has created no mechanism at the federal level for developing and enforcing uniform standards of education throughout the country. Furthermore, the current proposed method of “standards-based reform” differs from that of Japan because it threatens to impose set standards at a federal level, and does not provide any room for constructivism in the way that the Japanese national curricular guidelines do. The U.S. does currently have state education standards, which include content standards in core subjects, performance standards for students, and standards related to students’ opportunities to learn (all differing greatly from the national curricular guidelines that have proven so successful in Japan).

b. In America, individuals are labeled based on their differences in ability before they even enter school. The fact is, before entering kindergarten, many American school districts administer physical and psychological tests to determine whether or not they are ready for school. As a result of these tests, the child’s parents and future teachers are sometimes notified that the child will require special kinds of attention and treatment.

i. numerous studies have been done on the negative effects of labeling children, especially at such a young age.

c. Tracking is an all too common practice in the U.S., especially during the elementary and middle school years. Children are quite frequently divided into reading and mathematics groups based on their abilities in these subjects. As students make the transition to middle school, a lot of schools also track students into basic and advanced courses in mathematics and English. Before the start of high school, the majority of students are tracked into different levels of English and Mathematics, and some are also tracked into different levels of science (I was “tracked” into different levels for all three of these subjects).

d. American students generally only have the option to attend either a public or private academic high school (although some schools are beginning to offer specialized vocational programs). American high school students are required to attend school until age 16; each year, approximately 5% of high school students drop out of school, and another 20-40% quit for a period of approximately 3 months.

IV. Constructivist Teaching & Standards/Standardized Tests

A. Brooks & Brooks, The Case for Constructivist Classrooms.

1. Pages 101-118 outline twelve steps for helping teachers become constructivist teachers.

a. “Most teachersview constructivism as the way they’ve always known people to learn'” (p101).

b. The twelve steps, which Brooks and Brooks describe as, “twelve descriptors [which] highlight teacher practices that help students search for their own understandings rather than follow other people’s logic” (p118) are as follows:

1) Constructivist teachers encourage and accept student autonomy and initiative.

2) Constructivist teachers use raw data and primary sources, along with manipulative, interactive and physical materials.

3) When framing tasks, constructivist teachers use cognitive terminology such as “classify,” “analyze,” “predict,” and “create.”

4) Constructivist teachers allow student responses to drive lessons, shift instructional strategies and alter content.

5) Constructivist teachers inquire about students’ understandings of concepts before sharing their own understandings of those concepts.

6) Constructivist teachers encourage students to engage in dialogue, both with the teacher and with one another.

7) Constructivist teachers encourage student inquiry by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions and encouraging students to ask questions of each other.

8) Constructivist teachers seek elaborations of students’ initial responses.

9) Constructivist teachers engage students in experiences that might engender contradictions to their initial hypotheses and the encourage discussion.

10) Constructivist teachers allow wait time after posing questions.

11) Constructivist teachers provide time for students to construct relationships and create metaphors.

12) Constructivist teachers nurture students’ natural curiosity through frequent use of the learning cycle model.

c. Neither Standard-based reform nor standardized testing meet any of these twelve criteria for constructivism. Therefore, if constructivism is commonly viewed as “the way [we’ve] always known people to learn,” one can conclude that people will not learn through ANY use of standards.

V. Proposed Solutions/Alternatives To Standardized Tests & Standards-Based Reform

A. Use standards loosely.

1. Standards should exist in order to create an overall, broad realm in which teaching/learning occurs; they should not be a set checklist for teachers to follow.
a. should take individual needs into account along with the procedures of knowing, learning to learn, reading, thinking and inquiry.

B. Recognize and address real obstacles to education across the nation.

1. Instead of proposing new ways of doing things that cannot possibly be implemented because of other obstacles, begin by proposing ways of overcoming the obstacles (such as the problems of understaffing, overcrowding, etc. listed above).

C. Implement “alternative” assessment as the only means of assessment.

1. Alternative assessment is defined as: any type of assessment techniques other than traditional paper-and-pencil tests (Silvernail, 1992).

2. Essentially, alternative assessment encompasses all of the forms of assessment that respect diversity and meet students’ individual needs.

3. This will do away with the possibility of leaving students out or labeling students as a result of a low score on a standardized test.

D. Increase the teacher-to-student ratio.

1. Plenty of experts have continuously proven the need for small schools and small classrooms in order to successfully be able to respond to the individual needs of students.

2. “I worked with students who were so obnoxious they were excluded from the regular high school campus, and I know that when a teacher meets with such students in a small enough setting and they have no place to hide, they can be brought into a constructive, productive course of study. It is a course of study that is built by teacher and student together. It is not shipped out from a state board of education.” Susan Ohanian, long time teacher, award winning Author and Anti-standardisto extraordinaire.

Proponents of the SATs and other standardized tests claim that if we do away with standardized tests, other methods of judging students will have to be used to fill that void. Their argument is that these “other methods” simply will not work when, in actuality, we have proof that they work. Furthermore, where’s the harm in trying other methods? We already know the standardized test method is not working, so it’s not as if we are sacrificing anything by trying other methods. It is high time for this nation to eradicate failing teaching and assessment methods; instead, we should be devising a system of reform that emphasizes the “alternative methods” that have proven successful (portfolios, smaller classroom sizes, etc.). The fact is, standardized tests do not, by any means, adequately illustrate students’ abilities. In reality, these tests serve to do little more than measure students’ test-taking skills.

In an essay entitled, Building Standards-Based Schools, Anne C. Lewis supports standards-based reform by saying, “in a standards-based school, the standards are posted on classroom walls; students can explain how their studies relate to specific content standards, and describe what they need to do to meet a standard.” I found it funny that she used this in support of standards when it is actually a great argument against them. Walk into any school anywhere today and try to locate one student who yearns to justify how his/her studies relate to standards posted on a classroom wall; you won’t find one, because they don’t exist. Students don’t want to relate their schoolwork to words on a poster; they want to relate it to their lives and futures! By implementing the alternatives to standards-based reform, we can work towards presenting students with knowledge in a way that demonstrates its relevancy to their world. Standards will never achieve this.