The Viability of Standarized Testing

This isn’t just a topic for homeschoolers, but because many homeschoolers oppose mandatory standardized testing for their children, I’m putting it here.

Bro. Charlie says, “…Through the process of teaching standardized test prep courses, I have gone from believing that they are nearly arbitrary assessments to realizing that they are indeed the a phenomenal resource for assessing learning, second only to a personal interview with a tutor.”

I am skeptical of standarized testing, and opposed to yearly mandatory testing for homeschoolers. In the article, The Case Against Standardized Testing, the author asks, “How valid are test scores are predictors of grades? Do they have any validity as predictors of actual accomplishment? Are the tests biased against certain members of society? This essay will review the extensive critical literature on the subject of standardized tests in an attempt to answer these questions.”

An article in Psychology Today from 2004 points out that colleges are beginning to doubt SAT results as a predictor of student success. Also see Brain Toxic Classrooms, which looks at standardized testing from a neurologist’s pov.

And in a pathetic attempt to be fair, here is an interview from 2001 in The Washington Post with Bill Evers, a Hoover Insitution Research Fellow.

“Both teachers and students are trying hard to improve, but they don’t always get the best signals about how they are doing from our present system. Standardized tests, if done well, can provide those signals. Teachers, who want to get the most out of their students, will know more about student weaknesses. Students will know how they are doing. Parents will know whether they need to monitor Johnny or Suzie’s homework more closely. We can both have better incentives in our school system and elevate the standing of learning itself in our culture if we make wise use of standardized tests.”

Let’s toss this topic around and see where it splats lands.

 

 

 

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Charlie's picture

I may not get to a full posting before Monday, but I will throw some ideas out. First, my experience is with entrance tests - SAT, ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT - and I will confine my comments to them alone. Second, I will modify my earlier exuberant language to say that standardized entrance tests are relatively better than other forms of assessment, and, I think they are pretty accurate as indicators of raw ability. Third, most of these entrance tests (particularly the graduate level ones) are only secondarily about content; the higher difficulty questions are really testing the student's ability to reason deductively and apply general principles to unexpected situations. Most of my teaching consists of critical reasoning skills. I know that sounds strange, so I will try to post some examples next week.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

is the federalization of education. Attempts to organize school standards and make teachers accountable are not getting the results promised, and billions of tax dollars are going down the drain without serving our kids adequately. http://www.daytondailynews.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/dayton/opi... ]Here's an editorial in our local paper this morning about the problems with state report cards. These report cards are based on how kids perform on standardized tests. The focus in schools continues to be test performance, and the pressure to meet federal guidelines that have tax dollars attached has resulted in http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/10/28/national/main580355.shtml ]teachers cheating on standardized tests (also see http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0111/p01s03-ussc.html here and http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,35875,00.html here ) I could post about 6 news articles right now about teachers cheating so that kids could do better on standardized tests. The system is creating more dysfunction than it is fixing.

This is another way that elementary/secondary education is not the same as college. Funding methods are completely different, and tax dollars are not attached to student performance in the same way, resulting in a very different dynamic when it comes to testing.

Paul Matzko's picture

There are certainly going to be flaws in any standardized model, but I do support the basic idea of standardized testing. We live in a society of strangers today. Because of industrialization, geographic mobility, and the resulting atomization of traditional forms of community, we spend most of our lives interacting with strangers at work, school, and in our neighborhoods.

This is different (even if only in degree) from the past. Imagine with me a Puritan community in Massachusetts during the mid to late-17th century. The township is small enough so that pretty much everybody in town knows everyone else. A majority of the inhabitants have lived in the town for many years and a signficant minority have been born and raised there (at least, relative to today). Almost every villager is a member of the local, established parish. In this town you would personally know the abilities or skills of each potential laborer. So, for example, if you were a shopkeeper you'd know which kids were adept with numbers and would make good assistants. You would not need a formal, standardized testing procedure in this community.

But today we no longer live, work, or go to school among neighbors (in the old sense). Because we interact with the unknown we need some way of measuring the reliability and skills of people with whom we have no acquaintance. If we do not develop some standard of comparison a community of strangers cannot, or at least cannot efficiently, comingle and interact. Communities are formed by bonds of trust. How do you trust a stranger?

For business transactions we've seen the evolution of contract law. In an intimate society, your word can be your bond. The community acts as an arbitrator and can enforce the verbal contract by shunning the transgressive party. In a society of strangers we need written contracts. That is the cost of doing business today. Without strict legal guidelines and our judicial system, our modern society would be impossible. The development of standardized testing in education is a similar response to our modern society of strangers.

If you are a college seeking the best and the brightest students, how do you determine whether a student is da bomb or a bust? They have to have some way of comparing students to each other. This criterion must be standardized, applicable to all students; you cannot make a comparison without a consistent measuring stick. This is the basic flaw behind using GPA as your main measure of student performance. Every school grades differently. Some schools are guilty of rampant grade inflation. A GPA of 4.0 at one school might be equivalent to a 3.0 at another. With thousands of different grading standards, colleges and graduate schools have no hope of using GPA as a consistent measure.

Thus the introduction of the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GRE, etc. They attempt to, however imperfectly, fulfill a legitimate need.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Paul- I only have a minute, but I wanted to reply quickly to one of your points. I've read a few studies (at least one of which I linked to in the OP) that indicate the best measure of future grades is the student's previous grades, and that the SATs measure a student's ability to retrieve information, not their ability to think deeply. Many colleges recognize this and are moving away from standardized tests- how do you account for this?

Charlie's picture

Susan R wrote:
Paul- I only have a minute, but I wanted to reply quickly to one of your points. I've read a few studies (at least one of which I linked to in the OP) that indicate the best measure of future grades is the student's previous grades, and that the SATs measure a student's ability to retrieve information, not their ability to think deeply. Many colleges recognize this and are moving away from standardized tests- how do you account for this?

I think I can add something here. The standardized tests are definitely in favor of the quick thinkers. Standardized tests indicate future testing ability and raw cleverness more than diligence, perseverance, etc. So, these tests only give part of the picture, but they do contribute an important part. Standardized tests are primarily aimed at the critical thinking skills of students. They are not designed to test how much content the student has accumulated (except for the subject specific tests), but how well the student is able to apply familiar ideas to unfamiliar situations. That's why the math caps at about Algebra II rather than going through Calculus, which is usually available to high schoolers. Here's an example of a quantitative question from a GMAT (business school):

Quote:
Team X won 40 basketball games. What percent of its basketball games did Team X win?

1) Team X played the same number of games as Team Y.
2) Team Y won 45 games, representing 62.5 percent of the basketball games it played

Answer Choices:

A) Statement (1) alone is sufficient, but statement (2) alone is not sufficient to answer the question asked
Cool Statement (2) alone is sufficient, but statement (1) alone is not sufficient to answer the question asked
C) BOTH statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are sufficient to answer the question asked, but NEITHER statement ALONE is sufficient
D) EACH statement ALONE is sufficient to answer the question asked
E) Statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are NOT sufficient to answer the question asked, and additional data specific to the question are needed

The genius of this question type - data sufficiency - is that it pretends to be a math question while being nothing but pure logic. The student, after reading the question stem, must determine what information he/she needs to answer it, then evaluate the statements to see if they provide the information. Students who do unnecessary math, such as actually finding out the total number of games played by the two teams, are punished by the strict time limitations of the GMAT.

(For anyone who was wondering, the answer is C)

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Paul Matzko's picture

Susan R wrote:
Paul- I only have a minute, but I wanted to reply quickly to one of your points. I've read a few studies (at least one of which I linked to in the OP) that indicate the best measure of future grades is the student's previous grades, and that the SATs measure a student's ability to retrieve information, not their ability to think deeply. Many colleges recognize this and are moving away from standardized tests- how do you account for this?

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200401/testing-rip-the-sat

The person that the article quotes to say that high school grades are a better indicator of college success than standardized test scores, Robert Schaeffer, is the PR guy for an anti-standardized testing advocacy group backed by the NEA. So I question his authority; they have a giant axe to grind labeled "Ulterior Motives."

Also, if you read the subtext of the article the reason why these schools are dropping the SAT has more to do with the non-politically correct results the test gives.

Article wrote:
But its critics have gained momentum in recent years. They say that the SAT is a poor predictor of women's, non-native English speakers and older students' academic performance in college. Whites outscore African Americans on average by 206 points.

But great joy breaks through when...

Article wrote:
"These schools have reported greater diversity among accepted students and higher educational quality since they changed their policies," says Schaeffer. He also says that school grades are a better predictor of success in college than the SAT, despite the variability in high school curricula.

The better authority in the article is Robert Sternberg from Yale who notes that the SAT is limited, but useful. I concur.

On a tangential note, I find it ironic that as a homeschooler you would bite the standardized plan that feeds you. If it weren't for standardized testing, homeschoolers would have significantly harder time cracking into higher education. Do you really believe that, in the absence of stadardized testing, a selective university would choose a homeschooled kid just because their parents gave them all A's?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Everyone has ulterior motives. I don't discount information or insight simply because it supports someone's agenda. Teachers and school officials are NOT objective, and are just as capable of cheating- Google "teachers and cheating", ifn' you don't believe me. IMO teachers have even more motivation to skew grades than parents. I can't imagine a parent taking on the task of homeschooling, and then crippling their own child by fudging grades, but teachers with a classroom of other people's children are under enormous pressure to teach to the test so that schools can continue to receive federal funds and get a higher NAEP score. How many times have you heard stories about some star basketball or football player being allowed to pursue his sports career even though his grades were abysmal? So I'd prefer to deal with the veracity of the information itself, rather than eliminate it based on whether or not I think they have an ax to grind or a career to protect.

There are obviously http://www.mcte.org/journal/mej07/3Henry.pdf ]several problems with standardized tests . I do believe that they have a legitimate function, but the weight that these tests are given is out of balance with reality. And the more weight these test scores are given, the more likely the whole process will become corrupted- and the corruption (that I referenced in the above paragraph) has already begun, thus proving my point (or actually it's Campbell's Law- can't claim I thunk that one up).

When we discuss standardized testing, we need to realize that it isn't just the SATs we're talking about- I mentioned in the OP that testing is mandatory in schools, and in some states for homeschoolers as well. But since I don't follow the same scope and sequence as the local schools, and I've opted out of the system, why should I be required to comply? If you aren't using a gov't program, do you have to prove every year that you don't need food stamps, unemployment, or welfare by submitting your pay stubs and household budget? Do you have to prove that your children are receiving adequate nutrition by paying for a yearly checkup to be submitted to the local medical establishment to decide if your kids need to eat more veggies or exercise more? Why is it different with education? It's just as much in the public's best interest to make sure that kids are healthy and not being physically neglected, isn't it?

As for a homeschooler biting the "standardized hand that feeds it" (ugh), college entrance requirements usually take in much more than just an SAT score- they review transcipts (and as a homeschooler I can provide supportive documentation for my children's grades), there are usually academic letters of reference, and the student submits an essay. In The Washington Post article http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/30/AR200609... Colleges Coveting Home-Schooled Students , I don't see any grand importance given to SAT scores for homeschoolers-

Quote:
Home-schooled students _ whose numbers in this country range from an estimated 1.1 million to as high as 2 million _ often come to college equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in higher education, said Regina Morin, admissions director of Columbia College.

Such assets include intellectual curiosity, independent study habits and critical thinking skills, she said.


You can't test for intellectual curiosity or self-motivation. It seems the only thing a test can do is weed out the lousy test-takers and the seriously underperforming students. I know a homeschooled high schooler who is really brilliant- an avid reader, excellent carpenter, talented musician... and nearly fails the CAT every year. He just freezes when faced with a bubble sheet. Assign him a research project or essay, and he can go to the moon and back. Multiple choice- he completely bogs down because he is a deep thinker, and the stupid questions and answers on the CAT just blow him out of the water (he doesn't get the wrong answers, he just can't finish the test in the time alloted). If he was a product, like dishsoap or a handsaw, then standardization makes sense. But he is an individual person, and the idea of squeezing him out like toothpaste through a tube flies against everything we know about human beings as innovative and unique.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Charlie wrote:
I think I can add something here. The standardized tests are definitely in favor of the quick thinkers. Standardized tests indicate future testing ability and raw cleverness more than diligence, perseverance, etc. So, these tests only give part of the picture, but they do contribute an important part. Standardized tests are primarily aimed at the critical thinking skills of students. They are not designed to test how much content the student has accumulated (except for the subject specific tests), but how well the student is able to apply familiar ideas to unfamiliar situations. That's why the math caps at about Algebra II rather than going through Calculus, which is usually available to high schoolers. Here's an example of a quantitative question from a GMAT (business school):

The genius of this question type - data sufficiency - is that it pretends to be a math question while being nothing but pure logic. The student, after reading the question stem, must determine what information he/she needs to answer it, then evaluate the statements to see if they provide the information. Students who do unnecessary math, such as actually finding out the total number of games played by the two teams, are punished by the strict time limitations of the GMAT.


This is an excellent point, Bro. Charlie. I would say that this information would be incredibly useful if a student were pursuing a career as an engineer or biochemist, and the weight given to test results should correspond with the course of study the student wishes to pursue in college.

Paul Matzko's picture

Susan R wrote:
Everyone has ulterior motives. I don't discount information or insight simply because it supports someone's agenda. Teachers and school officials are NOT objective, and are just as capable of cheating- Google "teachers and cheating", ifn' you don't believe me. IMO teachers have even more motivation to skew grades than parents. I can't imagine a parent taking on the task of homeschooling, and then crippling their own child by fudging grades, but teachers with a classroom of other people's children are under enormous pressure to teach to the test so that schools can continue to receive federal funds and get a higher NAEP score. How many times have you heard stories about some star basketball or football player being allowed to pursue his sports career even though his grades were abysmal? So I'd prefer to deal with the veracity of the information itself, rather than eliminate it based on whether or not I think they have an ax to grind or a career to protect.

What you are arguing would matter if Robert Schaeffer was actually citing data. But all that Schaeffer gives as evidence is his own opinion:

Schaeffer wrote:
"These schools have reported greater diversity among accepted students and higher educational quality since they changed their policies," says Schaeffer. He also says that school grades are a better predictor of success in college than the SAT, despite the variability in high school curricula.

Schaeffer's opinion isn't worth a hill of beans as evidence unless he is an unbiased expert. This is why expert witnesses in court are required to have some proof of expertise and must not have ties to the party for which they are testifying. Thus I believe that it is perfectly legitimate to note his position as a professional spinner for an anti-testing advocacy group. All we are given is his opinion, and as I've noted, that opinion is suspect because it is biased.

Susan R wrote:
When we discuss standardized testing, we need to realize that it isn't just the SATs we're talking about- I mentioned in the OP that testing is mandatory in schools, and in some states for homeschoolers as well. But since I don't follow the same scope and sequence as the local schools, and I've opted out of the system, why should I be required to comply?

This is misdirection. The question posed by this forum is the viability of standardized testing in general, not specifically whether or not homeschoolers should be required to take such tests. These two questions are distinct though both are indeed worthy of discussion.

Susan R wrote:
In The Washington Post article Colleges Coveting Home-Schooled Students, I don't see any grand importance given to SAT scores for homeschoolers.

I do. Look at the second page:

Washington Post wrote:
The school's admissions standards for home-schooled students are identical to those for traditional graduates _ minus the formal transcript requirement. Some colleges and universities, though, continue to require home-schoolers to earn a GED high-school equivalency diploma or take subject-specific SAT tests along with the standard requirements.

Indeed, they are more likely to require that homeschoolers take extra standardized tests above and beyond what non-homeschoolers have to take. This is logical. The less independent verification the college can get, the more of an emphasis they are likely to place on standardized testing.

Susan R wrote:
If he was a product, like dishsoap or a handsaw, then standardization makes sense. But he is an individual person, and the idea of squeezing him out like toothpaste through a tube flies against everything we know about human beings as innovative and unique.

You have a gift for making things sound as unappealing as possible.(-; But what a standardized test tests for is not the person but what they know and how they think. Knowledge can be standardized. Either you know when Columbus sailed the ocean blue or you don't. Beyond just measuring what you know, a well designed test can determine your ability to think in certain ways. Logical thought, analytical ability, and comprehension are measurable.

Still, you are right to note that standardized testing is imperfect, that there are exceptions, and that success at test-taking is no guarantee of future success. That being said, the flaws of standardized testing are not grounds for denying any and all merit.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

There is evidence that the best indicator of future performance is past performance, and that applies to every area- jobs, education, and even criminal behavior. See Exploring Psychology by David G. Myers, and Mary Clement's work on Behavior Based Interviewing. BTW, where did you get the idea that Fairtest (Robert Schaeffer) was backed by the NEA? http://www.fairtest.org/about ]Their site states that "FairTest is funded by grants from the Bay and Paul Foundation, Ford Foundation, Polk Brothers Foundation, Schott Foundation, United Church of Christ, Wiener Educational Foundation, Woods Fund of Chicago, and many individual donors." Is one of those a front for the NEA or something? Although isn't it ironic that the NEA, which does oppose any emphasis on standardized testing, insists on testing for homeschoolers. Makes you go "Hmmmmm."

From http://www.fairtest.org/how-standardized-testing-damages-education ]How Standardized Testing Damages Education

Quote:
Don't standardized tests provide accountability?
No. Tests that measure as little and as poorly as multiple-choice tests cannot provide genuine accountability. Pressure to teach to the test distorts and narrows education. Instead of being accountable to parents, community, teachers and students, schools become "accountable" to a completely unregulated testing industry.

Quote:
If we don't use standardized tests, how will we know how students and programs are doing?
Better methods of evaluating student needs and progress already exist. Good observational checklists used by trained teachers are more helpful than any screening test. Assessment based on student performance on real learning tasks is more useful and accurate for measuring achievement - and provides more information - than multiple-choice achievement tests.

These responses IMO are intuitive. Multiple choice tests are not just very limited, they are severaly limited, and their increased importance is detrimental to the educational process.

Just in case I haven't provided enough support for my contentions, I'll repeat a report that was in post #7, also named http://www.mcte.org/journal/mej07/3Henry.pdf ]The Case Against Standardized Testing by Peter Henry from the Minnesota English Journal.

I think how testing applies to homeschoolers is relevant and certainly not an attempt at misdirection. Our current education system increasingly places emphasis on standardized tests- the stakes are incredibly high, with millions of dollars attached to student performance. The fact that homeschoolers are also being held to this standard is bizarre to me. IMO, the underlying assumption is that parents can't provide a fair assessment of their child's progress, but professional educators, who are always objective, can- and that is (here comes a really technical term) BALONEY. If I am not teaching to 'the standard', why would the standardized tests be helpful in assessing my home education program? Of what use is an inaccurate measure if one is attempting to verifying something? Having been dragged into the system kicking and screaming, I am certainly going to be objecting to how standardized testing affects my homeschool, so ya'll will just have to excuse me if you think that is off-topic.

Interestingly enough, it was a breath of fresh air to talk to folks in college admissions when our firstborn was deciding between college and the military. It was evident to me then, as it is now, that more colleges are seeing that the SATs are very limited in the amount of information they can provide. It is now almost unheard of for colleges to require that homeschoolers take the GED or submit to extra qualifying tests- something that was addressed by the The Higher Education Act Amendments of 1998 with regards to qualifying for student loans. The Army had no trouble with the transcripts I submitted to my son's recruiting officer, and he did not have to take the GED to get in the Army or to take online college courses.

Anyway, if we're going to conclude that the SATs have a valid but limited use, then Yippeee- we agree. I do find standardization, when it comes to human beings, to be very unappealing. It doesn't surprise me that this comes through in my posting. You'll find that I'm never coy and seldom subtle. It's one of my most endearing qualities. http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php ][img ]http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-fc/flowers.gif[/img ]

What I'd like to see presented is evidence that the SATs do what many appear to think they can do, which is provide a substantial basis for assessing a student's mastery of various subjects as well as serve as a predictor of future progress in college or in a vocation..."there is no research data showing that such “high-stakes” environments actually work to improve effort, achievement or scholarship."(Peter Henry, The Case Against Standardized Testing, p.43)

Paul Matzko's picture

Susan R wrote:
BTW, where did you get the idea that Fairtest (Robert Schaeffer) was backed by the NEA? http://www.fairtest.org/about ]Their site states that "FairTest is funded by grants from the Bay and Paul Foundation, Ford Foundation, Polk Brothers Foundation, Schott Foundation, United Church of Christ, Wiener Educational Foundation, Woods Fund of Chicago, and many individual donors." Is one of those a front for the NEA or something?

They cohosted a conference back in May and they seem joined at the hip in anti-testing articles that I've seen. http://www.fairtest.org/fairtest-nea-state-assessment-reform-conference

Susan R wrote:
Our current education system increasingly places emphasis on standardized tests- the stakes are incredibly high, with millions of dollars attached to student performance. The fact that homeschoolers are also being held to this standard is bizarre to me. IMO, the underlying assumption is that parents can't provide a fair assessment of their child's progress, but professional educators, who are always objective, can- and that is (here comes a really technical term) BALONEY.

You're talking about two different things here. The whole point of a standardized test is to assess student performance more accurately than professional educators can. This is precisely why the NEA hates standardized testing...it reveals how bad a job many professional educators have done educating America's children.

Susan R wrote:
It is now almost unheard of for colleges to require that homeschoolers take the GED or submit to extra qualifying tests- something that was addressed by the The Higher Education Act Amendments of 1998 with regards to qualifying for student loans. The Army had no trouble with the transcripts I submitted to my son's recruiting officer, and he did not have to take the GED to get in the Army or to take online college courses.

And I propose that the rise of the ACT and SAT is precisely why colleges no longer require a GED. Simply put, standardized testing is a superior criterion to high school equivalency GEDs for colleges which are looking to judge the abilities of strangers. A GED is limited because not all GEDs are created equal. The advantage that a test like the ACT or the SAT has is precisely that every ACT is equal. Since colleges have standardized tests to measure ability they no longer place as much value on GEDs and such. This is why I wrote the whole "bite the hand" comment. Standardized testing has made access easier for homeschoolers by and large, not harder.

But all that said, as you noted, "Yipee," we agree on the basic issue. Smile

PS - Do you have a cheat sheet for all those fancy little emoticons I can borrow?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Paul- I sent you a PM with the link to my Top Secret Smiley Stash.

I can agree with the idea that homeschooler's performance on the SATs has helped colleges and the public at large take home education more seriously as a successful option, but I think it is due to the unearned importance with which people have endowed the test, and not to the veracity of the test itself, and I think we've agreed that it provides a limited assessement of the student's abilities, although we disagree as to the value of that limited assessment. At least colleges have begun to wake up to other considerations, and give more weight to the student's transcripts, letters of recommendation, student essays and interviews than they do the SAT. This is a step forward for all students, not just homeschoolers.

Standardized testing in the elementary and secondary grades, however, is counter-productive and patently unfair IMO. It doesn't matter that my kids ace it- what bothers me is that it is a waste of $75 and two days every single year. It pacifies the school superintendent, but other than that, it provides no information whatsoever about my children's mastery of the subject matter they've covered that year. And the more specific tests require that the student follow the same scope and sequence as the public schools, for whom the tests are constructed.

Last year, a retiring HRW textbook salesman gave my husband the contents of his warehouse- I had about 650 public school textbooks- student and teacher's editions- in my living room. Oh boy, was that fun. http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php ][img ]http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-sick014.gif[/img ] In every TE, each chapter contains information about standardized test content and drills for the students to practice for the tests. Like, wow.

This is pertinent to the topic IMO because high-stakes testing is part-and-parcel of NCLB http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php ][img ]http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-sick009.gif[/img ] and can pigeonhole children unfairly while they are still developing physically and mentally.

Joseph's picture

I think some broader factors should be considered here.

First, speaking objectively and not relative to some pragmatic goal (like getting into college), I've never read any respected educator who thinks well of objective tests

Take Jacques Barzun for example, a great model of a scholar, humanist (in the best sense), educator, and writer. Barzun wrote extensively on teaching and education, having served at Columbia for most of his life, including as Dean of the Graduate School. In numerous places, including his book Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, he comes out explicitly against objective, multiple choice tests. He thinks they are worse than useless. Barzun, for people who know who he is, should mean a lot, but he's hardly alone. The point here is that multiple choice, objective tests are intrinisically unhelpful in the process of education. Their only value, and this is key, is with respect to people other than the student, and with respect to goal's other than education. Objective tests go against good education, as people like Barzun well know, but they fit with the standards of bureaucratized systems because they provide objective, shared assessments.

So, objective tests, of which standardized tests are instances, are not helpful for educating people nor are they evidence that someone is educated.

Second, the way we assess is provincial; many do not do it this way. When German exchange students, or students from many other countries (e.g. I know a guy from Latvia educated in the Russian system) come to my graduate school, the freak out because some classes have tests, which they simply do not use in their home system (the Latvian wrote essays even for mathematics exams; go figure - he's good at math, by the way). So, the whole idea of exams and tests used the way we do is not only recent but it's also far from universal. Indeed, anyone who knows anything about an Oxbridge education knows that, even today, practically everything rests on how well you do on your exams that you take at the end of you degree; those scores determine whether you get a First, Second, or Third Class degree.

Third, even given their value for bureaucrats, standarized, objective tests are still of highly dubious value for the people, ultimately, for whom they are most relevant: the teachers/employers of the people who take the test. I have yet to meet a respected academic or scholar in my field who thinks well of GRE scores; in fact, one of the leading scholars in the history of philosophy told me in correspondence that he found the GRE's worthless for predicting student success. Again, this is not uncommon.

Fourth, if you think of all the really important means of asessments, like BAR and CPA exams, exams for people graduating for a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, the battery of tests use for comprehensive exams in academics, or the tests administered to people in the military/government jobs who are seeking to move up in rank, none of them center on (some don't use any) objective, multiple-chooise tests because what such tests assess is normally utterly worthless for gaining a sense of people's fitness at that level.

Fifth, a key question to ask about any test is: who is assessing the results? If only experts in the respective fields tested on are qualified to review and assess the test data, then you are likely to have a test that actually tells you something worthwhile; if any idiot can assess the test results, as is necessarily the case in objective, standarized tests, then you have a very good idea of how limited the data from that test is. This is why people like Barzun, by far among the historical majority, place the emphasis on essays. Objective tests cannot tell you any of the important things about a students' knowledge; just knowing when something happened is, truly, worthless if you don't know how the student thinks of that data. I am positive I know a great deal more about certain events than some people who may remember the dates of them better than I. My knowledge cannot be assessed on a standarized test; only an essay would adequately reflect it; their knowledge could be objectively assessed, and those are the types of students' favored by objective exams.

Finally, I don't think the solution is prior grade records. Educators know those are not very helpful because there are not uniform standards of grading, and grade-inflation is a problem that runs from the lowliest schools all the way into the Ivy League. As many graduate schools will point out on their websites, a 4.0 from PoeDunk U is worth far less than a 3.2 from the University of Chicago or a 3.5 from Princeton. That's why admissions commitees so value the only two generally reliable indicators of student preparation: writing samples and (to a lesser extent if the person is unknown) recommendation letters.

So, I think objective tests have little to any intrinsic value; indeed, Barzun and others would say they are positively harmful as we use them; and at the scale at which we use them, I don't know what sensible person could disagree - I know many teachers who are frustrated by the idiocy of having to "teach to the test," instead of teaching their subject as it should be taught they teach it according to some standarized test requirements.

Although the nature and standards of helpful assessment vary from field to field, the principles do not change much; look at great schools with proven and deserved reputations and you will see patterns, patterns that don't involve heave weighting (if they are used at all) of standarized tests. Oxford is a good example if you have never looked at the admissions process (it involves, among other things, formal examinations in you field as well as an interview that can essentially be an oral examination by an expert in the area to which you are applying).

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

and not just because I agree. Smile

As I took on the task of educating my kids, I began reading A LOT of books about what learning really is, and the best way to ensure that a child not only can retrieve information, but knows how to and enjoys processing it. During that time, I developed a skepticism about standardized tests, and then there followed a corresponding skepticism of grading and grade levels. So Joseph, you are preaching to the choir here on that score.

Whatever schools used to be, today public schools are first and foremost gov't institutions with all the bureacratic trimmings. Since most folks have spent 12 years of their lives in this setting, it is very difficult to get people to think outside traditional classroom methods of organizing classes by age instead of developmental readiness. And the idea of not having tests and grades? Are you kidding? That's heresy! Off with his head!

It seems to me that the natural progression of any conversation about testing is going to end up being a conversation about what education really is. Until you have identified your goals, how do you even know if you're headed in the right direction?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I knew I had this blog post lying around somewhere- Charlie Roy does a http://soulycatholichs.blogspot.com/2008/05/grades-grades-and-more-grade... quick overview of the history of grading and includes links to his sources.

Quote:
Have you ever heard of William Farish? Grades first entered the educational system with the industrial revolution. Prior to this time, education consisted mostly of students in small groups working with mentor teachers. The quality of the education was tied largely to a teacher's ability to pass on skill and knowledge to this small group of students.

The industrial revolution and the shift from rural to urban life brought large changes to society. One such change was the transformation of the traditional pedagogical approaches of education to one that could serve mass numbers of students in an efficient manner. Enter William Farish. A tutor at Cambridge, Farish came to realize that the more students the school could enroll with fewer instructors, the more revenue each instructor could potentially receive. Farish's adoption of "grading" from factories where products were "graded" into the classroom made it possible for teachers to see greater and greater numbers of students each day. For most schools this process of grading remains.

Alfie Kohn is also http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm critical of grading systems .

I stopped 'grading' my kids' work a long time ago. I occasionally do evaluations for record keeping purposes, but I can see on a day-to-day basis whether or not my kids are mastering the material. A test or letter grade serves no purpose whatsoever. But it is the language of education in America, and if you don't speak it, folks have a hard time believing that you are 'doing school'.

All of which has led to my dim view of the importance given to standardized testing in our current system, and why I personally do not want to be beholden to it.