The Tornadic Effect of Standardized Testing
Standardized testing has become a huge part of our school system in recent years. Testing can be beneficial because it highlights potential changes to the curriculum and helps districts see in what areas their students perform well. However, standardized tests are also problematic for many parents, teachers, and students. In his book The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools, Alfie Kohn states, “The more we learn about standardized testing, particularly in its high-stakes incarnation, the more likely we are to be appalled.” Unfortunately, standardized tests don’t always reflect students’ and teachers’ abilities.
Students’ increasing test anxiety means the tests don’t show us what students are capable of or what they really know. Standardized tests are most often multiple choice. This format doesn’t encourage students to think about what the answer to a question actually is. Kohn tells us, “Students are unable to generate a response; all they can do is recognize one by picking it out of four or five answers provided by someone else. They can’t even explain their reasons for choosing the answer they did.” In short, standardized tests don’t motivate our students to think critically but rather to memorize and recite answers.
The pressure and stress of standardized testing also cause schools to lose good teachers. Many teachers feel that they spend more time preparing students for standardized tests than they do teaching. According to Kohn, some of our best teachers are leaving the field, and those who stay often become defensive and competitive. Demands on teachers that their students perform well are so intense that some teachers have resorted to cheating or turning against their students.
Teachers often don’t have time to teach the content they should because standardized testing has changed the way instruction takes place in a classroom. Many teachers acknowledge that they “teach to the test.” As Kohn states, “Teachers often feel obligated to set aside other subjects for days, weeks, or even months at a time in order to devote themselves to boosting students’ test scores.” Some teachers may even halt all instruction to concentrate on taking practice tests instead. We are teaching students how to take a test rather than skills that they need to get through life. What a disservice we are doing to our children today!
If this was not already bad enough, we are subjecting children as young as six years old to standardized testing. Other countries around the world do not give these kinds of tests to young children. As Kohn states, “Our children are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world.” We know we should not be testing children this young. So why are we?
Standardized tests have a tornadic effect on schools. Administrators pass the pressure on to an already stressed staff. Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and then wind up leaving the profession altogether. Students are so distraught that they throw up on testing day.
What can we do about all this testing?
Here is what I suggest: We cannot rely on data from one test, on one day of the year. Why not use cumulative assessments to collect data throughout the year? Some students do not test well, others get sick on testing day, some are tired, and some just plain don’t care about how they do on their test. Creating a portfolio of assessments would allow schools to truly see what a student can do without creating a ridiculous amount of stress on all involved. It is time for a change!
For more info, see Alfie Kohn’s book The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools, published in 2000 by Heinemann.
ATPE works hard to reduce standardized testing for public school students. See TeachtheVote.org for more information.
Tracy Eggers is a second-grade teacher in Clear Creek ISD. She graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. She holds a master’s degree in education with a reading concentration.