When I was a youngster, I remember my teachers expressing a great deal of concern regarding standardized test results. More specifically, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) were a very big deal. We would spend months preparing specifically for these tests. We’d sit in our neat, little rows and memorize exactly what the teacher had to say about a topic. In the era of No Child Left Behind, these things were important.
Then the test would come. Still in our little rows, we’d sharpen a pair of pencils and stare at bubble sheets for three or four hours. My favorite part of the entire process was the half-way point, when they’d bring in a tray of prepackaged orange juice for everyone. Then, it’s back to the bubble sheets until leaving for home.
This style of teaching works great- if the idea is to churn out good little workers just smart enough to work society’s machines and too passive to ever change the status-quo. However, if the idea is to foster an environment where children can gain critical thinking skills, then I would advise our teaching professionals to buck these standardized testing rituals and try something more nuanced.
Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN wrote an editorial for The Star Tribune arguing the importance of standardized testing. As a student, I can hardly agree.
He says standardized testing is “the most effective, objective way to understand how well kids are learning.” Standardized testing is an excellent way to measure how good kids are at memorizing things, how good they are at regurgitating the information they’ve been trained to accept. They do not, however, require much in the way of high level thinking.
Standardized tests often result in teachers “teaching the test.” In other words, they narrow the scope of their curriculum to fit the standardized test. This limits both teachers and students from engaging in topics that may not be measurable on a standard test. Moreover, it keeps teachers from teaching students in a way that suits them best.
Likewise, standardized tests fail to capture or facilitate the growth of “soft skills.” While test numbers may have some indication of how you will perform academically, they don’t reflect how you will perform as a member of society. So you can fill in a bubble on a test sheet, so what? What about creativity? Problem solving? Curiosity? Your ability to take on a longer project?
I would submit that standardized testing has one final affect on students: it teaches them that learning must be boring, it must be grueling, and it must be stressful. They take away the joy of learning and discovering, and replace it with machine-graded bubble sheets and small glasses of orange juice from concentrate.
I am not opposed to the idea that we need to measure student success and learning outcomes. However, using the same tests across the state or nation does more harm than good. These measurements should be taken in a way that actually reflects and facilitates student learning.