First, a definition: A standardized test is a test that is scored in a consistent, or “standard” manner across schools or nationwide. Wikipedia defines it as “Standardized tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent and are administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner.” The consistency of the tests presumably makes them easier to compare across groups. In other words, if all 11-year-olds are administered the same test, one might argue that their cumulative answers can provide some clue as to their academic achievements. What standardized tests do not take into consideration, however, are cultural differences among the test takers. In the United States, students from many cultures attend the same classes. The standardized tests administered do not reflect the mentality or background of a child from Korea or Mexico as one who was born and raised in the United States.
The purpose of any test is to gauge understanding of a subject matter. Standardized tests do not measure that at all. Their subject matter is too broad, if it measures achievement of students from across the country.
Moreover, standardized tests are answered on a punchcard, through multiple questions, where one of the possible answers is correct. Simply guessing at the answer might produce results similar to ones where a child applies him or herself. With one out of four answers being correct, that 25% probability is an easy guess. But to arrive at measures and statistics relating to entire groups based on such a test is absurd. Such a test measures nothing, if “achievement” is determined by marks on a punchcard, rather than the deeper comprehension of the subject matter. Naturally, assessing such deeper comprehension requires much more involvement from the educators themselves in reading and grading such efforts. Standardized tests, by their nature and their ubiquity, require only the most superficial kind of regurgitation of answers, and do not, therefore, measure understanding of the subject matter.
If standardized tests were devised in order to rank students, they do a poor job of it. How many times have we seen a student fail miserably in his academic studies, only to shine later on when left to do what he or she enjoyed? Indeed, wasn’t Einstein himsef a “poor” student?
Standardized tests require great effort by the developers of the tests, as well as great sums of money by the state to administer them, grade them and use their results to formulate future academic courses. It is money and effort that would be so much better spent in areas that truly teach students how to think critically, how to analyze information, how to develop insight and exhibit sound judgment in their lives as productive citizens.
Studies have shown that the most effective “learning” occurs where the student is able to apply material learned to an abstract situation in his or her own life. The preferred method for instilling such learning is through a special form of testing, known as the adjunct test. For example, an experiment conducted with two groups of seventh-grade students, in which they were given a 750-word passage to read. One group had to answer 10 adjunct questions, two of which were inserted following each 150-word segment of text; the other group had no such questions added to the text. Both groups received a test on the material immediately following reading, and again one day later. The group that received the adjunct questions performed significantly better on both the immediate recall and delayed post-tests.
As an educator, my aim is to ensure that whatever I teach is not only retained by the student, but more than rote, I want my student to apply that knowledge. Standardized tests do not measure such understanding, and should be eliminated, in favor of in-class tests administered during the course, mid-term exams and final exams, and application of the subject matter through the performance of various projects. Students should not be measured against each other, and certainly not as a “standard” (average) against so-called similar students in other parts of the country.
The most effective form of test by far is the essay. Here, it is necessary for the student to think about the subject matter, reflect on how to write about the subject matter, and use his or her memory banks for material learned both in class (if he or she listened and took effective notes), as well as material studied outside of class. An essay poses a specific question to be developed by the student, based upon prior learning. The student cannot cheat on an essay – the student must engage his or her thinking mechanism in such a way that memory and comprehension are engaged, in order to apply that knowledge to the question posed. Indeed, life itself is an essay: situations present themselves, and a person must respond appropriately to the situation, based on prior learning. Isn’t that what the whole purpose of schooling is?
There is another purpose to testing which is not so obvious – or well known, or, indeed, utilized in academic circles: to reinforce learning. The very act of answering test questions actually reinforces the underlying learned material, by requiring the student to engage his or her memory banks, search through the mental files for a given situation, and then select the best answer from among a choice, or better yet, to write it out in his or her own words. This requires mental effort, and it is this very effort which serves to cement the knowledge more deeply in the student’s mind, just as hard physical exercise leads to stronger muscles. The act of studying requires several behaviors: listening to lectures, reading material and at times writing. Each of these activities requires a different set of mental behaviors. Listening engages the receptive brain, and is fairly passive, as is reading the material. When the student paraphrases the material just read or heard into his or her own words, he or she is now sifting through the information, picking and choosing among the words how to best explain a given idea. Now the brain is working to deeply entrench that knowledge and utilize it. It is the behavior of explaining material – writing it out in paraphrase – that establishes deep learning that lasts over time. That should be the true purpose of testing. A test for which one learns by rote, and then forgets the minute one hands in the paper is useless.
It is the responsibility of educators to instill lifelong learning in their students. Standardized tests do nothing to further that aim.