The school district just finished a week of standardized testing for many students. I could complain about what this testing cost in funding or school time or schedule disruption, or launch a discussion about the veracity of these tests, their effect on standardizing instruction and squashing individual creativity, and their use as ammunition in the battle to discredit public education. But I’m not really in the mood for any of that – I think its more productive to look at the very concept of standardized testing itself to determine what value it still has in society.
I admit it’s taken a long time for me to get to this point, because I’m exceptionally good at taking tests. They’ve gotten me good grades, thousands of dollars in scholarships, and have also to a large extent validated my work in recent years. And there is still some solid evidence that standardized tests can be a meaningful predictor of student achievement in college – that was certainly true in my case, where my college GPA correlated much more closely with my SAT scores than with my high school GPA. But I think its worth asking if the basic qualities that define a standardized test – consistency, objectivity, and control of the testing environment – are in fact the qualities that make them increasingly inappropriate assessment tools.
First, everyone loves a consistent test, because it is the same throughout the country. But that consistency leads to predictability, and that predictability is perhaps the greatest weakness of standardized tests: the stakeholders (either schools or students) know what to expect, and so can ‘study’ for it. The millions of dollars this country pumps into test prep are clear evidence that this consistency has led to an uneven playing field – those millions have to come from somewhere, and its certainly not from the underprivileged. But worse than that, standardized testing is preparing kids for a world where the challenges they face will be clearly defined beforehand, with guidebooks available for their use several months in advance of encountering a problem. This is clearly not the world into which they are entering.
The supposed objectivity of the tests encounters the same problem: I would guess most adults (Except professional ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ contestants) rarely encounter a problem where there is one definitively superior answer, presented as one of four options Life generally consists of choosing from a variety of subjective answers to a problem, weighing their strengths and weaknesses, and choosing the ‘best’ course of action for a particular goal. In general, any problem that can be presented in multiple choice format can be answered in 45 seconds on Google. Real problem solving takes a bit more finesse.
Which brings us to the final problem: a closed and sterile testing environment is perhaps the situation most dissimilar from the one kids will encounter in the world. A person with immense stores of memorized knowledge is great entertainment at a dinner party, but both academic and professional use of knowledge needs to be coupled with the ability to answer questions and prove points using the resources available to a modern person. However, it is also the case the a sterile testing environment may give too optimistic a view of the challenges of post-secondary work or education. Perhaps the best predictor of future success would be a test that consisted of a difficult but boring and unpleasant task on the left, and a bottle of whiskey and a Playstation on the right. It doesn’t really matter how much knowledge or intelligence a student has if they lack the intellectual curiosity to seek out more, the focus and drive to do so in a world designed to distract them, and the resilience to keep doing so in the face of unexpected challenges.
Obviously, not everything needed for success can be taught in school. But by having our children forever taking tests, both to judge their schools and them as students, we as a society are giving the impression that what is important for success is similar to what is seen on tests. In fact, it would seems as though these tests are at best poorly aligned with the world students will need to face if they plan on being successful in the real world, and it is high time we supplemented or replaced them with a more realistic method of assessment.