Standardized tests are useful when properly used

No other issue in education is as poorly understood as testing.  And no aspect of testing is more controversial than standardized tests. That’s why it’s ironic that on the same day as schools in New York State were administering standardized math exams, the state Assembly passed legislation to bar the results of such tests as part of the teacher and principal evaluation process (“State Assembly passes bill to stop schools from linking student test scores to teacher evaluations,” New York Daily News, May 2).

If I had not taught for 28 years, I would be totally opposed to the action.  After all, shouldn’t effective instruction be reflected in how students perform on a test?  But that view is based on the assumption that all tests are created equal. The fact is that tests are measuring instruments.  How they are designed largely determines student outcomes.

Most standardized tests are created to allow students to be ranked.  If test makers loaded up their instruments with the most important material taught effectively by teachers, scores would likely be bunched together, making comparisons difficult.  To avoid that possibility, the tests contain items that have been shown in the past to produce score spread. I call those trick questions. It’s unfair, but it produces the desired outcomes.

A far better use of standardized tests is for diagnostic purposes.  I believe teachers would welcome the results as a way of providing them with invaluable feedback.  Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, uses that approach.  It does not name and shame schools, treating test scores confidentially.  I realize that many people will view this suggestion as an excuse for poor instruction.  But I submit it’s worth a try.  That’s why I’m not opposed to what New York State has done.

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4 Replies to “Standardized tests are useful when properly used”

  1. Had not heard about standardized tests using “trick” questions to spread scores to facilitate ranking. Makes some sense for SAT or ACT test-drafters to do this, but do not see why the test-drafters would do this for state competency exams (like the NYS Regents or the Virginia Standards of Learning). The purpose of these state competency exams is to determine whether a student has learned the important material; it is not intended — at least not primarily — to facilitate ranking of students.

    That said, I completely agree that school systems should administer standardized tests + should not use the test scores to evaluate teachers or schools + should use the test scores to determine to what extent students have learned the course material.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Standardized tests can be primarily designed to be norm-referenced (comparing new test takers with a previous group of test takers) or criterion-referenced (assessing how much new test takers have mastered designated content). In other words, the former is a relative measurement and the latter is an absolute measurement. Both can be useful for diagnostic purposes, which is what Finland has done. The results are kept confidential and are seen by teachers as useful feedback. When such tests are used punitively, Campbell’s Law kicks in.


  3. 1. There is a big difference – at least in math – between the SAT and ACT tests.
    2. At least in Florida, there is very little diagnostic work done with standardized tests.
    3. From my experience, when you use state tests to evaluate teachers and schools, teachers will “teach to the test”.
    4. There are many colleges today do not require either the SAT or ACT.
    5. As a coach, I used break down each test and determine a common area that students had trouble with. When I discussed this information with teachers, a common reply was, “It must be the student’s fault because I covered that material”. Just because a teacher “covered” something does not mean the students understood it. Major problem with math teachers.


  4. mathcoach2: Most people mistakenly believe all tests are created equal. That certainly applies to standardized tests, of which the SAT and ACT are the most familiar. But so much depends on what the tests are designed to measure and how the results are interpreted. I have no objection to standardized tests, provided they are used properly to inform teachers on how efective they’ve been.


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