Education Opinion

Assessment Apathy

By W. James Popham — May 12, 1999 5 min read
Educators’ indifference to the misuse of standardized tests is having calamitous consequences.

Although not a well-established psychological syndrome among educators, assessment apathy can be serious. For example, consider what’s currently happening in our schools because educators have allowed students’ scores on standardized achievement tests to be used as indicators of instructional effectiveness.

While the results of standardized achievement tests can be useful to both teachers and parents, such tests should not be used to judge the success of schools. This misuse of standardized achievement tests has led to a number of calamitous educational consequences.

In what follows, I will briefly suggest (1) why educators have allowed the misuse of standardized tests to flourish, (2) why standardized achievement tests are inappropriate indicators of school quality, (3) what adverse consequences the misuse of standardized achievement tests has spawned, and (4) what we can do to remedy this situation.

  • Ignorance-sired indifference. Let’s be honest. Educators don’t know all that much about measurement. Many classroom teachers, of course, can whip up winning exams for their own students. But if you ask most educators any technical question about how a standardized achievement test is created, you’ll get some pretty superficial responses.

Most educators have not been well-trained in educational assessment because few teachers or administrators have taken more than a single course, if that, in educational testing. Thus, when standardized achievement tests began to be employed in the mid-1960s to satisfy the program-evaluation requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, educators sat passively back--because they didn’t know any better.

And when, a couple of decades ago, we began to see newspapers rank schools according to their students’ scores on standardized achievement tests, educators also acquiesced to that misapplication of tests--because they didn’t know any better.

  • Misused measures. The chief reason that standardized achievement tests should not be used to evaluate instructional quality stems from the items that make up such tests. Those items are designed to permit relative comparisons between a student’s score and the scores of students in the test’s norm group. So those comparisons can be sufficiently fine-grained, there must be a reasonable degree of variance in students’ scores. And it is the standardized-test developer’s unrelenting quest for score variance that leads to the inclusion of items ill-suited for the measurement of instructional quality.

A good many items in standardized achievement tests are more apt to be answered correctly by students from affluent families or students who inherited plenty of academic aptitude. Such items measure things not taught in school. And even the standardized test items that actually measure knowledge and skills that might be taught in schools will often fail to coincide with the curricular content stressed in a specific school. The content sampling that’s required in standardized tests (so the tests aren’t too lengthy) often leads to a misalignment between what’s tested and what’s taught in a particular school.

  • Educational harm. One of the most troubling consequences of using standardized-achievement-test scores as the barometer of a school’s success is the lengths to which some educators will now go to make sure their school’s test scores improve. There’s way too much classroom time given to test preparation these days. Such test-focused obsessions rob children of curricular content that they should be covering--but won’t because of the school’s score-boosting hysteria.

In a related but more insidious vein, it is common knowledge that in some districts, there’s so much pressure on teachers to boost standardized-test scores that classroom instruction is aimed at actual test items or mildly modified clones of those items.

Finally, many unsound educational decisions are being made about instructional programs based on students’ standardized-test scores. Many schools serving disadvantaged children are deemed to be ineffective on the basis of test scores that, in reality, reflect what children bring to school, not what they learn there. And, conversely, schools serving advantaged students appear to be successful even though the school’s students may actually have been instructionally shortchanged.

What to do? The misuse of standardized achievement tests as measures of educational quality occurred originally because of educators’ disinclination to deal with assessment instruments about which they knew little. As the misuse of standardized-test scores became ever more pervasive, educators continued to assent because they weren’t sufficiently knowledgeable. Well, that simply must change.

I urge educators to become thoroughly familiar with the innards of any standardized achievement test being used in their setting. These tests are not sacrosanct instruments, suitable to be scrutinized only by the psychometrically sanctified. Rather, they are collections of items that, in the aggregate, are now being misused to judge our schools’ quality. Under security-controlled conditions, educators have every right to analyze those tests to see what proportion of a standardized achievement test’s items actually measure a school’s instructional effectiveness.

But the shortcomings of standardized achievement tests cannot erase educators’ responsibilities to be held accountable for student learning. Other, more appropriate assessments of students’ growth must be employed. Performance tests that assess high-level cognitive skills can be given on a pretest and post-test basis, then blind-scored by nonpartisans. We need credible evidence of students’ growth, but standardized achievement tests simply won’t provide it.

W. James Popham is an emeritus professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. This coming fall, Allyn & Bacon will publish his book on educational assessment, Testing! Testing!: What Every Parent Should Know About School Tests.