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Education Opinion

Response: Standardized Test Critiques & Potential Alternatives

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 11, 2011 8 min read

Alice Mercer asked:

What are the major critiques of standardized tests and what are alternatives to them?

My bias is pretty obvious if you look at the title of my related “The Best...” list -- The Best Posts On How To Prepare For Standardized Tests (And Why They’re Bad).

However, there are far more articulate critics than me out there, and two of the most well-known and most respected -- David C. Berliner and Yong Zhao -- agreed to respond to Alice’s question.

During the nineteen-year community organizing career I had prior to becoming a teacher in 2002, one of the most important life lessons I learned was encapsulated in a quote from Saul Alinsky, the founder of our organization -- “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.” Unfortunately, one blog post does not provide sufficient space for a discussion of shortcomings of standardized tests, much less a review of potential alternatives.

I’ll devote another future post to alternative assessments. However, in the meantime, I’ve brought together links to the most thoughtful commentaries on that topic at The Best Articles Describing Alternatives To High-Stakes Testing.

For now, though, here are responses from my invited guests...

Response From David C. Berliner

David C. Berliner is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University, He has written, coauthored or edited over 200+ books, articles, papers, and chapters, among them The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools and Collateral Damage: How High-stakes Testing Corrupts American Schools. You can read -- and hear -- more of his thoughts on education policy issues here.

Last week’s post here discussed English Language Learners and the two different consortia of states that are developing the “next generation” of standardized test. Professor Berliner specifically addresses their broader plans.

I see problems with both consortia. First, I think the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) is doing too much testing. As I understand it they plan three high-stakes testing sessions during the school year and then a high-stakes end of year summative assessment in both reading/language arts and mathematics. This is likely to result in eight high-stakes tests a year! I think this is nuts! It says to me that none of the designers of this testing system understand the realities of classroom teaching. This approach is sure to produce eight anxiety-ridden times a year for the students and their teachers, as well as eight days that will be destroyed for instruction, and many more days lost in preparing for the tests. Furthermore this is much more likely to occur in the schools that serve our poorer children, thus producing a high likelihood of boring many of our neediest children to death at an early age.

I see another potential problem in that both consortia plan adaptive tests, particularly the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). It is nice that all the test developers are pledging not to use so many multiple-choice test items. But adaptive testing works really well with multiple-choice items. As I understand it adaptive testing is harder to do with other item formats, so I expect a heavy weighting of multiple-choice, low cognitive level, single-right-answer, cheap to produce items to be featured on these tests. This kind of testing has been used in America for a long time, but has become particularly salient since NCLB was made law. This over-reliance on multiple-choice items for accountability may be the reason why there are some credible claims that the USA is engaging in creaticide--the deliberate destruction of creativity in our youth through national educational policies (see Berliner, 2011).

Worst of all, however, is that both tests are designed to make inferences about what students know and can do, but do not do a very good job of assessing what teachers taught well or poorly. However, at the insistence of the Federal government and politicians without psychometic knowledge, the tests will be used for both student and teacher assessment. The validity of the inference about student competencies vis a vis other students may be defensible, although a students’ score will surely be heavily loaded with social class factors, thus invalidating that score as a credible measure of school and teacher effects. Given this situation the validity of the inference about what value teachers’ add is sure to be quite faulty.

But it is worse: Items for these tests are likely to be picked to spread out the students, as in adaptive testing and in norm referenced approaches to assessment. Traditionally, to do that, you pick items that have around a 50% probability of being answered correctly. But here is the craziness: The test developers are likely to be throwing out items reflecting standards that teachers’ have taught well. That is, items on which teachers have demonstrated effects, such that the items are answered correctly by more than, say, 70% of the students, are items eliminated from the test battery because they appear too easy. This traditional approach to assessing students, systematically eliminates items that reflect teaching skill, thus making inferences about teachers’ skills invalid. Designing a test to validly infer student capability may prove to be a source of invalidity for inferring teacher capability!

In sum, although I hope I am proved wrong, I currently see three worrisome factors emerging. These are the promotion of too much formal testing, too much reliance on cheap and fast to administer multiple choice test items, and validity problems if the tests are to be used to judge teacher competence as well as student rank.

My reference is to a chapter I did recently:
Berliner, David C. (2011/in press). Narrowing Curriculum, Assessments, and Conceptions of What it Means to be Smart in the US Schools: Creaticide by Design. Chapter 9 In Ambrose, D. & Sternberg, R.J. (eds.) Dogmatism and High Ability: The Erosion and Warping of Creative Intelligence. NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

Response from Yong Zhao:

Yong Zhao is a professor at the University of Oregon. Professor Zhao has published over 20 books and 100 articles. His most recent books include Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization and the Handbook of Asian Education. He writes a “must-read” blog on education issues.

The Atlanta cheating scandal is no longer in the news but the lessons should not be forgotten. As much as its proponents try to disassociate the cheating with the unreasonable, senseless, extremely high pressure high-stakes testing placed on educators by understating the scale of cheating in the nation’s schools and suggesting more strict security measures to prevent future cheating, abundant evidence sends a loud and clear message: It’s time that we put an end to high-stakes standardized testing.

After a decade of NCLB, it has done enough damage to American education without realizing any of the claimed benefits. The forced unethical behaviors of cheating by educators and states are the smallest, albeit most noticeable, of the damages. By imposing upon schools and teachers unrealistic, meaningless, and arbitrary goals, high-stakes testing has corrupted the spirit of American education, intoxicated the education environment, and demoralized educators.

By forcing schools and teachers to teach to the test, it has narrowed the educational experiences of millions of children and thus deprived our children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, of a real education. It has wasted valuable, precious, and dwindling public funds that could have been put into educating rather than testing our children. It has generated unnecessary fear, anxiety, and loss of confidence in our children. It has distracted us from addressing the real challenges facing education today: poverty, globalization, and technological changes. It has taken away the opportunities and resources for exploring innovations that may lead to true improvements in education. But most importantly, it has eroded the traditional strengths of American education that have made America the world’s center of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, and democracy. These damages have been inflicted for nothing good in return. This decade of high stakes testing has neither narrowed the achievement gap nor made education in our large urban centers any better. It has not even improved test scores.

Advocates of high-stakes standardized testing may argue that the damages are unintended consequences and can be fixed with better tests. More money is being poured into making high-stakes testing “better:" national “common assessments” so states cannot lower their standards, tighter security so teachers and students cannot cheat, as well as increased test validity and accuracy. These technical fixes won’t change the nature of high-stakes standardized testing as a simplistic measure of a very small portion of what children learn, what schools teach, and what matters in real life, with the undeserving power to control the behavior of teachers, students, and parents. Thus, regardless of the technical improvements we make, high-stakes standardized testing cannot shake off the collateral damage that is too great for any benefits it may bring.


Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. .

Thanks again to Alice for posing this week’s question, and to Professors Berliner and Zhao for sharing their answers!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

The next few posts will be moving away from education policy issues and, instead, be returning to questions about classroom management and instructional strategies.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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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