Education Opinion

Do Standardized Tests Reflect Student Learning in Schools?

By Patrick Ledesma — March 21, 2011 2 min read
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“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
-Albert Einstein

“What is tested does count, but much of what counts cannot be tested.”
-Student Learning, Student Achievement Report Task Force

Many teachers quote Albert Einstein when describing the challenges and frustrations they feel towards standardized testing and its impact on their classrooms.

Teachers often explain how testing narrows the curriculum, limits the variety of student learning opportunities, emphasizes basic skills, and fails to measure higher level thinking such as creativity. Teachers feel that they help students learn so much more than what is reflected on test scores. The majority of teachers do not teach in subjects and grade levels that are tested.

The recent National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) Report, Student Learning, Student Achievement, adds to this “counts versus counted” dialogue by describing the differences between student achievement and student learning.

The report emphasizes that it is student learning- not student achievement- that is relevant to defining and assessing effective teaching.

Student learning and student achievement are closely related concepts.
But while the two terms are often used interchangeably, they convey profoundly different ideas, particularly as they relate to teaching. In brief, student achievement is the status of subject-matter knowledge, understandings, and skills at one point in time. The most commonly used measure of student achievement is a standardized test. Such standardized assessments measure specific areas of achievement--for example, the extent to which a 3rd grader has mastered the English/language arts standards in his or her state or district--and are best understood as one measure of a subset of a body of skills or knowledge.
Student learning is the growth in subject-matter knowledge, understanding, and skills over time. In essence, it is an increase in achievement that constitutes learning. Central to this notion of learning as growth is change over time. Knowing whether student learning has occurred, then, requires tracking the growth in what students know and can do.
It is only by comparing student mastery at successive points in time that the nature and extent of learning can be gauged. Student learning is also reflected in a broad array of outcome measures, including attendance, participation, engagement, and motivation.

To expand on the differences between student achievement and student learning, the report contains a graphic, “From Learning to Measuring” that depicts the limitations of formal testing in core subjects in relation to the total learning that occurs in classrooms.

The graphic is very clear in showing how little formal tests measure when compared to what students learn in schools. The graphic accounts for other learning that can be measured by other assessments.

“Reproduced with permission of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards”

The box represents the broad domain of skills, learning, and knowledge we expect students to know and be able to do. The shaded triangle reflects the considerable-- but still incomplete--portion of what students are expected to know that can actually be measured by different means.
The bottom of the triangle shows the wide base of learning that occurs in any given classroom, while the middle section reflects the narrower- but still substantive--range of knowledge that potentially can be measured through a range of assessments and activities by a teacher in the classroom.
The top of the triangle represents the extent of what is actually measured by formal, wide-scale testing, which typically only covers core subjects such as language arts, math, and, in some cases, social studies and science.
In other words, what is tested does count, but much of what counts cannot be tested.
Achievement will always be larger than a single test and is not specific to any particular assessment.
Teachers must monitor achievement regularly using a variety of formal and informal assessments for both individual students and the class as a whole.

The Student Learning, Student Achievement Report articulates and expands the “counts versus counted” and “student learning versus student achievement” dilemmas that all educators experience in schools daily.

This report, along with other similar literature that discusses the effects of testing, continue to provide a common language and resource for which educators and other concerned stakeholders can better engage the public on the merits, limitations, and pitfalls of relying too much on standardized tests.

The graphic “Learning to Measuring” simplifies, in an easily digestible format for the public, what all teachers already know to be true. For everyone else, the message is now clearer, more concise, and more convincing than ever before.

Disclaimer: I was part of a NBPTS webinar that discussed this report. My opinions are my own.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.