What’s standardized testing? Definitions, professionals and cons and extra
Standardized testing is a hot topic fraught with controversy. Although these reviews have been around for decades, the proliferation of testing over the past 20 years has brought the issue to the fore. As parents consider rejecting their students, and some states seek to abolish them, it’s worth asking: what exactly are standardized tests, and why are we focusing on them so much?
What is standardized testing?
Source: State Impact
In a standardized test, each student answers the same questions (or questions from the same set of questions) under exactly the same conditions. They often consist of multiple-choice questions and are given on paper or (more commonly these days) on a computer. Experts carefully select the questions to test specific skills and knowledge.
Large groups of students take the same standardized tests, not just those in the same class or school. This gives people a chance to compare the results of a specific group, usually children of the same age or grade level.
What types of standardized tests are there?
There are several types of standardized tests, including:
- Diagnostic test: These often help determine if a student qualifies for special education. You can test academic, physical and fine motor skills, social and behavioral skills and more. Examples could be a hearing test or a learning disability test.
- Achievement Test: This type of test measures a student’s current strengths and weaknesses in a specific area, almost always academic subjects. Examples include the SAT, the Iowa Assessments, and the tests that many states use at specific grade levels.
A list of popular standardized tests can be found here.
How are standardized tests scored?
Each individual standardized test has its own scoring mechanism. Typically, a student is given a score based on the number of correct answers they give. These scores can be analyzed in two different ways: criteria-related and norm-related.
Criteria based evaluation
Source: Criterion-Based Testing/Renaissance
In this type of assessment, a student’s scores are measured against predetermined standards, not against the scores of other test-takers. Their score could help educators place them in categories such as “competent,” “advanced,” or “poor.”
Advanced Placement (AP) exams are an excellent example of criteria-based testing. Students are given a score on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the highest. You earn these points based on preset standards. Students are not graded in comparison to each other.
Another example would be a driver’s license test. Students pass or fail based on their answers, without reference to how others score. Criteria-based tests help measure a student’s personal achievement, regardless of age or grade level.
Source: Norms-Based Testing/Renaissance
In norm-related tests, students are ranked based on their score. This categorizes them into “percentiles,” which measure how they fared compared to their peers. If a student is in the 58th percentile, it means they scored more than 58% of all students who took the exam. It’s usually better to rank in a higher percentile.
Most federally standardized tests are norm-based, as are IQ tests. A student may do well on a test, but if their peers do better, they are still ranked in a lower percentile. These values are ordered on a bell curve.
You can think of norm-related tests the same way you see a growth chart in the doctor’s office. Doctors know the average height of a child at a given age. You can then compare a given child to these averages to determine if they are smaller or larger than average.
Learn more about criteria-based vs. norm-based testing here.
What are standardized tests for?
Standardized tests are designed to provide educators with an opportunity to determine how effective their teaching strategies are overall. They can also help identify students’ strengths and weaknesses so that individual attention can be given to those students if needed. Many consider it an important way to ensure that all students in a state or even nation learn to the same basic educational standards.
The Primary and Secondary Education Act 1965 initially required schools to use standardized tests. This law provided funding for schools to ensure that every student had access to equal educational opportunities and used standardized tests to determine how schools compare to the national average. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pushed standardized testing even further. It tied some federal funding to student test scores, dramatically upping the ante for schools.
The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 currently requires annual statewide tests in literacy and math for all students in grades 3 through 8 and once during the high school years. States are also required to administer science tests at least once in each of grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.
What are the advantages of standardized tests?
Proponents of standardized tests see the following factors as advantages, among others:
- Standardize quality curricula: By requiring standardized testing, schools across the country can be confident that they are providing the essential skills and knowledge that every student of a given age needs. Experts determine the skills and knowledge that they believe will enable students to thrive in the larger world after graduation.
- Equality and Equal Opportunity: Traditional education systems have long underserved low-income populations. By requiring all schools to meet the same standards of education, as measured by tests, education becomes fairer for all.
- Eliminating bias: When computers or impartial raters score tests objectively, potential bias is eliminated. (This assumes the test authors created unbiased questions.)
- Measure of Teaching Effectiveness: High-ranking schools may be able to share their teaching methods with those that rank lower, encouraging resourcefulness and collaboration across the system. Tests can identify where teachers may need more training or where additional funding could help schools improve their programs.
Learn more about the potential benefits of standardized testing here.
What are the disadvantages of standardized tests?
Despite the potential benefits, backlash against increased testing has grown louder in recent years. Teachers, students, and parents worry about many factors, including:
In a nationwide study of the largest urban schools, students completed an average of 112 standardized tests from kindergarten through graduation. Students may spend up to 19 hours or more on these tests each year. And this does not include the time spent on test preparation or practice tests.
Also, teachers often find that standardized tests do not match their textbooks or other materials. Sometimes they don’t even meet government educational standards. And even if this is the case, the standards may not be particularly relevant or useful for every student.
Learn why teachers wish they were more involved in standardized test development.
Taking a test is never a relaxed process, and the same is true for standardized tests. Students are examined from all angles to ensure they are not cheating. Teachers have to carry out this check and sometimes have to undergo this check themselves.
There is so much pressure to do well on these tests that children can feel it is a matter of life and death. Their anxiety is through the roof, and even those who know the material thoroughly may not do well under the pressure. And more and more districts are evaluating teachers based at least in part on student test scores. This can affect their salary and chances for advancement.
More children than ever are struggling with test anxiety and we need to help
lost class time
As exam days are lost, not to mention preparation time, other pedagogical aspects are left behind. Teachers lose the opportunity to provide students with more meaningful hands-on experiences. They eliminate unique and compelling projects or activities that are not directly related to the items contained in tests. As the saying goes, “teach them to the test” and no more.
Read what a teacher would like to tell their students about benchmark tests.
lack of useful data
Many teachers will tell you that they can almost accurately predict how their students will perform on the standardized tests. In other words, these tests don’t give you any new information. Teachers already know which students are struggling and which have the required skills and knowledge. Generated data rarely seems to provide useful direct benefits to teachers or students.
Check out the 7 biggest complaints teachers have about testing – and how to fix them.