Essay: Student Assessment and Standardized Tests

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Student Assessment and Standardized Tests

In an era of high stakes testing for the nation's public high school students, some educators assert that test development should precede standards development. This approach, though, is like putting the cart before the horse and runs the risk of having educators "teaching to the test" rather than ensuring that their students learn the material and become critical thinkers in preparation for college and later life. Standards should be established at the outset and teachers should seek to satisfy these without worrying about their students' performance on such standardized tests because if the students and teacher do what they need to do, the standardized tests will take care of themselves. Moreover, there a number of ways to determine if standards are being met without using standardized testing regimens that demand closer scrutiny. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature concerning standardized testing in general and what approaches can be used to ensure that standards are being met with or without standardized tests. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Given their importance, it is little wonder that standardized tests have been the focus of an increasing amount of attention in recent years. In this regard, Turner and Rios (2008) emphasize that, "Student achievement on such measures has never been more important. Recent mandates such as the No Child Left Behind Act (2003) will directly affect how federal monies are allocated to schools that fail to meet standards" (p. 140). Indeed, the stakes are high when it comes to standardized tests for the students involved as well as their teachers. While high school students may not be allowed to graduate without passing standardized tests in some states and the results of the ACT and SAT are widely used for college admission purposes, the outcome of these tests are also highly important for the teachers involved as well. For instance, Turner and Rios add that, "Ultimately, the reputation of the school and the jobs of administrators and teachers may hang in a precarious balance according to how well students perform on state mandated standardized tests" (p. 140). Clearly, some students are better at taking tests than others, and it is reasonable to suggest that no standardized test is capable of determining how much students have learned or how well they have learned it. As Sacks (2000) points out, "We know that the results of such tests tell us precious little about competence. They merely measure one's ability to perform well on tests" (p. 2). Moreover, standardized tests fail to measure in any meaningful way what students are capable of doing with the material they have learned besides take tests with it. For instance, Blasi (2005) points out that, "Norm-referenced, standardized tests will never tell anyone all that students know, let alone what they can do with their knowledge. To suggest otherwise is not only ignorant but also cruel. The proliferation of tests is alarming" (p. 242). Therefore, accurately assessing students' abilities requires more than the yardstick provided by standardized tests. In this regard, Sacks (2000) stresses that, "In whatever the context, ability is often judged from meaningless tests of 'aptitude,' regardless of our proven ability to perform the job, do the work, get the grades, or accomplish remarkable things" (p. 2).

Based on their empirical observations and a study of the effectiveness of establishing standards first, Turner and Rios conclude that, "Given the high-stakes nature of such tests, it seems imperative that educators begin and continue to implement more inquiry activities within their classrooms. In so doing, students stand to gain a better grasp of the material while attaining the valuable content knowledge and reasoning skills necessary for success on standardized tests" (p. 141). In other words, by ensuring that students learn according to established standards, the results of standardized tests will take care of themselves. This is a scary proposition for some educators, though, who want to simply rely on the results of such tests to gauge how well their students are absorbing the curricular offerings being delivered. This point is made by Sacks (2000) who emphasizes that, "Unfortunately, the public largely accepts the legitimacy of this tool of the meritocracy, believing the exams are accurate predictors of success for individuals and good measures of the quality of our schools. This erroneous view is reinforced constantly in our culture" (p. 2). Much of the research to date has challenged the efficacy of standardized testing in assessing student ability. For instance, Sacks adds that, "Educational researchers have found that such tests have proven to be of dubious value in predicting one's ability to perform on practical tasks that really matter" (2000, p. 2).

In reality, the use of standardized tests is just an easy way out for teachers and such tests do not provide the robust assessments needed to determine what students are learning and how well they are learning it and where they may need additional assistance. Moreover, and just as importantly, because they are "standardized," such testing regimens may place minority students at a distinct disadvantage compared to their white counterparts, an issue that is particularly relevant in an increasingly multicultural society such as the United States today. In this regard, Garcia and Fleming (1999) note that, "There is considerable opinion that standardized tests are unfair to African-Americans and other minorities. Opponents of standardized tests allege that they are inherently unfair to disadvantaged minorities because they are culturally and educationally inappropriate, because such tests are frequently wrong in assessing the potential of minorities, and because wide variation in predictive validity suggests unfairness" (p. 471).

The flip-side of this argument concerning standardized tests and their fairness in measuring performance by minority students is that because they are "standardized," such tests provide an equitable opportunity for all students to demonstrate the grasp of the material in the same way. In this regard, Garcia and Fleming add that, "Proponents of standardized tests argue that they offer an objective, common yardstick that helps identify capable students who come from various backgrounds and grading systems. Thus, they prevent discrimination against able minority candidates" (p. 471).

This debate remains largely unresolved, though, because has been a dearth of relevant research concerning the predictive qualities of standardized testing on minority students to date. Because such importance is attributed to standardized test results, though, the message that is being communicated by minority student performance on them has affected perceptions of their ability without substantive research to support these perceptions. According to Thompson (2007), "Each year, when standardized test scores are published, the same message tends to surface: In general, the scores of blacks and Latinos trail those of other groups, especially whites. This pattern emerges so often that it usually doesn't surprise educators or researchers" (p. 22) Given the importance of their outcomes, though, the growing body of evidence concerning their lack of ability to gauge minority student learning should certainly be taken into account in any decision whether to developing tests first and then standards or to develop appropriate standards for learning first and allow standardized testing regimens to assess how well these standards are being met.

While there is certainly a place in the nation's schools for standardized testing, there are better ways of assessing student achievement that may require more effort on the part of teachers, but the results have been shown to be superior to relying strictly on standardized testing for such assessment. For example, an increasing number of high schools across the country have started using portfolios and capstone projects as a measure of student performance. While these assessment techniques require a great deal more effort on the part of the teachers involved, they offer a wide range of advantages for assessment purposes compared to the use of standardized tests alone. For example, Neill (1999) states, "Imagine an assessment system in which teachers had a wide repertoire of classroom-based, culturally sensitive assessment practices and tools to use in helping each and every child learn to high standards. The evidence of such learning can be kept in portfolios, which in turn can be used by students and teachers to reflect on, summarize, and evaluate student progress" (p. 34). The use of portfolios in particular appears to represent a vastly superior approach to the sole use of standardized testing because they provide a culturally sensitive approach to measuring student performance that may require additional effort on the part of the teacher, but which have been shown time and again to provide the feedback needed to assess how well students are learning. As Neill emphasizes, meaningful classroom assessment can be viewed along a continuum where assisting students with their individual interests and ways of thinking is at one end while the standard ways of knowing and the ability to perform in ways that American society has established as being important lies at the other. "In the middle," Neill suggests, "are individualized ways of learning, understanding, and expressing… [END OF PREVIEW]

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