In Defense of Standardized Testing

It seems like every day there’s another article about the horrors of standardized testing. Just this week comedian Louis CK raised the issue to seemingly new heights when he first took to the Twittersphere to rail against testing and then followed up with an appearance on Letterman. His daughter took New York’s state tests last week, and he wasn’t happy.

New York was not alone. Across our state, schools administered the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) this past week. Schools in other states did the same with their respective state tests.

And Louis CK is not the only one speaking out against testing. It’s become a trend.

But I’m going to take the unpopular stance of defending standardized testing.

Why Test?

First, let’s look at the purpose of tests – or, as many educators prefer, assessments. And, to do so, let’s consider what school would be like without assessments.

How would we know what kids know without assessments? That’s the purpose of testing kids – to figure out what they know and are able to do.

Assessments also give us data to inform instruction. If I teach something, but my class still hasn’t mastered it, then as a teacher I need to examine how I taught it the first time in order to teach it better next time. Likewise, if my class already knows something, I don’t need to teach it to them; we can move on to other things. Maybe most of my class have mastered a skill, but a handful need more time. Either way, I need data to inform my teaching – and that data comes from assessments.

In sum, testing lets us know what kids know and can do, which helps us teach them better.

Why Standardized Tests?

Okay, so maybe we do need to test kids. But is it necessary to take standardized tests? That’s a fair question, so let’s look at the purpose of tests being standardized.

Not all classes are equal. We all know this, right? Some teachers are better than others, some classes are harder (and some easier), etc. As a result, not all tests are equal.

Teacher A, the veteran master teacher, will probably write better tests than Teacher B, the rookie who has never written a test before. Likewise, Teacher C, the hardworking young teacher with high expectations, will probably write a much more difficult test than Teacher D, the veteran who has been in the infamous “dance of the lemons” and has taught at five schools in the past five years.

It is for this reason, because not all tests are equal, that we need a common test. That’s what it means for a test to be standardized, after all – that everyone takes the same test.

If everyone is taking different tests, then you can’t compare scores. If you can’t compare scores, then you can’t measure teachers, schools, or districts.

If Teacher A’s students achieve 1.5 years of growth in a single school year, then we need to know what she is doing and share it with others. If Teacher B’s students down the hall only grow 0.75 years, then he probably needs extra coaching and support. The same with a school or a district; those achieving growth should be celebrated, while those not achieving growth should be supported. Either way, we can only determine objective growth data if tests are standardized.

One more point here. Critics often talk about income, race, native language, disability status, etc. Well, the great thing about standardized tests is that everyone takes the same test, no matter of any of that. A standardized test is an equal playing field. When they’re graded, no one is looking at income or zip code.

A Few Caveats

Now, just because I’m in favor of standardized tests in general does not mean that I’m in favor of all standardized tests. Some tests are bad. Case in point: Tennessee’s TCAP. Multiple choice has its place, but an all-multiple choice test like TCAP is not the best. Any Reading/Language Arts test that doesn’t require short answer and/or essays is a bad test, and any Math test that doesn’t require you to show work is a bad test. You just can’t assess deep knowledge and understanding with multiple choice. (That’s why the recent decision to delay PARCC, a clear upgrade over TCAP, by our state legislature makes no sense.)

Once we accept this, it becomes clear that it’s not enough to be in favor of standardized tests – we have to be in favor of good ones.

Critics often like to talk about teaching to the test. Louis CK used this argument on Letterman the other day. Well, he’s wrong for two reasons.

First, the test is not to blame! It’s not like tests have agency. A test can’t make a teacher do anything. If you have a problem with teaching to the test, then blame the teacher who is writing the lessons, blame the principal who is probably directing the teacher to teach that way, blame the superintendent who is pressuring the principal to focus on the test. There’s blame to go around, but none of that is the fault of the test.

Secondly, what’s wrong with teaching to the test anyway – if it’s a good test? You know how good teachers plan? They start planning a unit by writing the test they want to use at the end. Good teachers define the end goal first and then plan backwards from there. They plan their lessons based on the test they wrote. That’s good teaching.

The problem is not teaching to the test. The problem is with bad tests. Anytime you teach to a test that is only multiple choice, you are setting the bar too low. Good teachers in Tennessee are transitioning to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), whether or not the PARCC test starts next year, because CCSS are better than the current TN State Standards. We taught Common Core this year at my school, and our kids were still prepared for TCAP. And I’m convinced that teaching the more rigorous CCSS will produce higher TCAP scores anyway.

Conclusion

TCAP wasn’t even talked about at our school this year. The first time I remember our principal even mentioning it was after Spring Break, when she told us that TCAP was coming soon but that we were doing a great job, that we already had data to show that our scholars had grown tremendously, and that our kids are more than test scores.

We didn’t do a bunch of test prep, and we didn’t have any big TCAP pep rally. We just went about the business of good teaching and learning. Test day was just another day, no big deal.

And, when I asked several scholars who struggled this year how they did on TCAP, they responded that “our teachers taught us all the hard stuff, so the test was pretty easy.”

We’ll see how they did soon enough. But it felt good. The test was important, very important, but nothing to get worked up over.

That’s how it should be.

James Aycock is currently the Director of Scholar Support at Grizzlies Prep, an all-boys public charter middle school located in downtown Memphis. He previously served as the founding Special Education Coordinator with Tennessee’s Achievement School District, after several years as a special educator and baseball coach at Westside Middle School in the Frayser community of North Memphis. Contact him at jaycock@grizzliesprep.org.

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6 replies

  1. You say: “One more point here. Critics often talk about income, race, native language, disability status, etc. Well, the great thing about standardized tests is that everyone takes the same test, no matter of any of that. A standardized test is an equal playing field. When they’re graded, no one is looking at income or zip code”
    A standardized test is NOT an equal playing field. It is testing the knowledge that the test writer thinks is important, and I think it’s fair to say that the main values and cultural knowledge of the writers go back to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant background of middle class America. As America becomes more diversified, this WASP philosophy becomes more irrelevant and many test scores go down. Also, I saw a lot of mention of teaching and teaching methods, but not much discussion of student attitude and ability. When students think tests are silly, they tend not to put forth their best effort. This doesn’t have anything to do with the teacher’s ability.
    The world is changing in so many ways. Let’s dump the standardized tests and teach kids how to think instead of memorize.
    From a 70 year old former teacher who has been against standardized tests forever.

  2. If a test is written that is easier for White Anglo Saxon Protestant background middle class America to score well on, than it is not a good test, which is exactly what this article is saying. Also, if students think tests are silly, and obviously this is much more difficult to do, but a great teacher needs to find a way to motivate and change those students mindsets. Also, former teacher, how do we measure if we are teaching kids to think? Will we give them a test? Hmm….
    From a person who thinks my age doesn’t change the validity of my comment.

  3. My issue with testing is not that tests are standardized. My problem with them is how easy it is for high stakes standardized testing to become the be all and end all. Teachers’ evaluations are often based in large part on their students’ test scores. Students’ ability to graduate often hinges on their performance on one high stakes test. This ignores many aspects of teaching, learning, and education that are not easily assessed through standardized testing. Problem solving ability, creativity, hands-on application of ideas (science labs come to mind) are just a few of these areas.

    I also do have a problem with “teaching to the test.” If you happen to work in a school in which testing is the administration’s primary concern, teachers won’t have time to teach subjects that may not necessarily be on the test but which constitute a passion or area of expertise for them. Personally, I know two teachers who have retired early because they felt that education – elementary level for both of them – had become too fixated on testing and didn’t afford them the flexibility they had come to value. Both were excellent, veteran teachers.

    I think there’s a place for testing in our educational system. Many of your points are valid. If they’re part of a larger system of assessment, evaluation, and planning, they can be valuable. It’s only when they eclipse everything else – which seems to be the rule rather than the exception these days – that they become problematic.

    • Thanks for the contribution, I also agree that there is a place but that we often place too much of an emphasis on them. The focus should never be testing at the expense of all else.

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