Much of the time and money devoted to testing is misspent.
. . . Test scores provide little useful information to help improve instruction
and students' learning. In pursuit of higher test scores, the curriculum
has been narrowed and "dumbed-down" to match the tests. Children
Every year, America's public schools administer more than 100 million
standardized exams. These include readiness tests, to determine if a child
is ready for the kindergarten program offered by the school; screening
tests, to determine if a child will be labeled as learning disabled or,
at the other extreme, as gifted and talented; intelligence tests, which
are widely but erroneously thought to measure intellectual ability; and
achievement tests, which measure a much narrower range of skills and content
than what we really want students to learn. Because of these and other
concerns about standardized tests, educators have been developing alternative
methods of assessment-methods and measures that more accurately reflect
the curriculum and what parents and the public want children to learn,
know, and be able to do.
Concerns about standardized tests
The following is only a partial list of concerns that have been raised
about standardized tests. While such concerns and criticisms apply particularly
to multiple-choice tests, many of these observations apply to other large-scale
tests as well:
The primary purpose of many such tests is to rank-order students, their
teachers, and their schools: that is, to guarantee that some will be labeled
as successes and others as failures, with the vast majority considered
mediocre. This is the main function of norm-referenced tests. When
the distribution of test scores no longer resembles the bell curve, the
tests are renormed-typically about every seven years. Criterion-referenced
tests are also used to sort and label students, though they are not particularly
designed to do so.
Standardized tests (especially the multiple-choice variety) give a
false impression of objectivity and consequently of equal opportunity and
fairness. However, "the only objective part of standardized tests
is the scoring, which is done by machine. What items to include on the
test, the wording and content of the items, what will count as correct
answers, how the test is administered, and the uses of the results are
all decisions made by subjective human beings" (FairTest, K-12
Testing Fact Sheet).
Standardized tests are biased in favor of those whose culture and upbringing
most closely resemble that of the test makers-typically, white middle-class
males who live in metropolitan areas. Or in other words, such tests are
typically biased against females, children of color, children from lower
socio-economic backgrounds, and children who live in rural areas. Efforts
to eliminate such bias have only partially succeeded. Indeed, the very
nature of such tests is biased in favor of middle-class students.
Standardized tests tend to narrow the curriculum to what will be tested.
Because teachers are pressured by the demand to produce higher test scores,
they often spend a lot of time having students practice items like those
that will be on the tests. Indeed, the tests not only determine all too
much of the curriculum but may virtually become the curriculum. Such heavy
emphasis on testing crowds other, more important learning activities out
of the curriculum. Thus, standardized tests tend to discourage effective
teaching and engaged, meaningful learning.
For many young children, standardized tests result in "death at
an early age" (Jonathan Kozol's book title)-or at least to a life
sentence doing remedial practice and drill in special classes or lower
"ability" groups or tracks. That is, scores on such tests result
in many children's being given an inferior education that virtually ensures
that they will not learn what their more advantaged peers will learn. Because
so-called readiness tests are used to assign children to different classes
and "ability" groups, they and other screening tests condemn
many children to relative failure from the primary years onward.
Standardized tests tend to focus attention on what students do not
know and cannot do, in situations unlike daily life. At the same time,
they do not tell us what we really need to know in order to foster individual
Alternative methods and means of assessment
Two authentic and widely accepted alternatives to standardized tests
are known as "performance assessment" and "portfolio assessment."
Performance assessment looks at actual student work produced over time,
and-potentially, at least-at the processes by which the students produce
such work, both individually and collaboratively. "Portfolio assessment"
is similar. The term seems to imply that students' work will be collected
in an actual portfolio, though in fact other containers may be more practical
and, furthermore, the essence of portfolio assessment lies not in the container
but in the concept. Like performance assessment, portfolio assessment focuses
on students' products and processes of learning, but also on their growth
in other areas, such as their interest in reading and writing, their concept
of themselves as readers and writers, and their ability to evaluate their
own work and set goals for themselves as learners. In reading, for example,
authentic assessment might include many of the following kinds of information
Tape-recorded samples of students' oral reading, analyzed to determine
what strategies the reader uses effectively and what strategies (if any)
the teacher might help the reader develop.
Tape-recorded samples of a retelling and discussion of some selection(s)
they have read, with analysis of the reader's strengths in retelling and
discussing, plus recommendations for instruction.
Tape-recordings of students describing their thinking process as they
read both fiction and non-fiction texts, along with the teacher's analysis
and recommendations for instruction.
Notes on individual conferences with the reader, including particularly
conferences in which the teacher has focused on teaching a reading strategy
or developing a particular reading skill.
Results of interviews undertaken to determine students' understanding
of reading; the strategies they are aware of using to deal with problem
words and problems in comprehending texts; their evaluation of themselves
as readers and their willingness to read independently; and their goals
for themselves as readers.
Records of students' reading interests and lists of what they have
been reading during the year.
Students' responses to what they are reading: responses through art
and drama and literature discussions, for example, and responses written
in what are often called literature logs or reading journals. Recorded
observations of literature discussions and students' written responses
are particularly helpful in assessing change and growth in many of the
above areas, as well as growth in understanding literary elements and appreciating
and critiquing literature.
To generalize: authentic assessment is derived from what students are
doing daily in the classroom. At a minimum, it includes samples of students'
work, recorded observations of their learning processes, and students'
evaluation of their own processes and products, along with teacher evaluation.
While authentic assessment information can be summarized numerically for
grading, its primary benefit is that it improves teaching and learning.
See the guidelines developed by the International Reading Association and
the National Council of Teachers of English (1994).
REFERENCES AND RESOURCES
FairTest. (n.d.). K-12 testing: Fact sheet. Based
on FairTest's comprehensive study, Fallout from the testing explosion,
by N. Medina and M. Neill. See also Implementing performance assessments
and other FairTest publications. Write or call the National Center for
Fair and Open Testing, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139, (617) 864-4810.
IRA/NCTE Joint Task Force on Assessment. (1994). Standards
for the assessment of reading and writing. Newark, DE: International
Reading Association, and Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
National Commission on Testing and Public Policy. (1990).
From gatekeeper to gateway: Transforming testing in America. Chestnut
Hill, MA: Boston College.