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Putting Standardized Testing in Context

By Walt Gardner — September 18, 2013 2 min read
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Whenever emotions run high about contentious issues in education, I’ve always found it helpful to look at history as a guide. Standardized testing is a case in point. There was a time in this country when such instruments were not administered in public schools (Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History, Harvard University Press, 2013). Their absence never troubled taxpayers, who judged public schools instead by public exhibits, plays, parades etc.

But Horace Mann changed all that when he designed a test for public schools in Boston in 1845. The results shocked taxpayers because they were so bad. But then again so was the test itself. The questions were truly impossible. For example, students were asked to name “the rivers, gulfs, oceans, seas and straits, through which a vessel must pass in going from Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, to Vienna in Austria.” I don’t know anyone who could answer that question. Nor do I understand the rationale for including it. By the early 1870s, newspapers were publishing editorials and letters to the editor that lambasted the “testing mania.” They vilified the tests for rote teaching and impaired health among both students and teachers.

Standardized tests are still the subject of heated debate. They often contain items that are dubious from a pedagogical point of view. On the basis of the results, taxpayers draw invalid inferences about students and teachers. Let’s not forget that it’s easy to design a standardized test that can engineer practically any desired outcome.

The SAT and ACT are perfect examples (“Sneak Preview,” The New York Times, Aug. 2). Despite efforts now underway to rewrite them to make them more directly geared to what students are taught in classrooms, their ultimate goal is to create score spread among test takers. The truth is that if the tests were loaded up with items that measured what teachers effectively taught, scores might be bunched too closely together, making rankings of students difficult. Therefore, to achieve their real objective, the SAT and ACT out of necessity must include items that are highly unlikely to be taught by even the best teachers in the best schools.

Despite all their talk about change, producers of standardized tests can’t afford to alter their products too much because doing so would jeopardize their ability to deliver the results they promise. I’ve always believed that standardized tests should be used for diagnostic purposes, which is what Finland does. But I also recognize that will never happen. Follow the money trail to understand why.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.

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