Wondering What to Think About All These Tests?
Do you believe in accountability through statewide tests? Or do you worry that standardized tests will turn schools into test-prep factories?
Questions For Your School Principal
- How are the tests changing the nature of teaching and learning at the school, either positively or negatively?
- Are classes spending long hours practicing test-taking skills and memorizing lists?
- If so, what is being sacrificed to make room for these test-prep activities?
- Does the school make use of test results to identify areas of the school that need improvement or to target support for certain students?
- What is the school or district doing about students who are consistently scoring below grade level on standardized tests?
- What is the school doing to address any disparities between test scores for particular groups of students?
By GreatSchools Staff
Some Historical Perspective
One of the reasons that federal and state governments are currently so focused on testing is that for years there was no common way to find out if children were meeting grade-level expectations. Without a coherent policy about testing, each district, and sometimes even each school, chose its own method to assess learning, creating a hodgepodge of data that was not comparable.
This lack of data led to a sense that some students - often poor and minority - were not mastering basic skills, and that schools were letting children slip through the cracks. The notion of accountability is that by mandating tests and publishing results, teachers, students and parents will stay focused on the most critical objective: ensuring that all students succeed.
Accountability has taken on an increased emphasis in schools across the country as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which requires that schools show evidence of "adequate yearly progress," known as AYP, for all groups of students. Schools in years past considered to be high achieving may not make AYP if certain subgroups, such as English-language learners or minority groups, are not scoring at proficient levels. Schools that don't make the mark must provide transfer options for their students and provide supplemental services, including tutoring.
NCLB defines national standards for achievement, but it's important to remember that each state designates its own test for measuring achievement. Consequently, some states have higher standards than others. In addition, a number of states have successfully applied for waivers when large numbers of their schools have been considered "in need of improvement."
The Best Tests
The quality of the tests and how the tests are used are the root causes of most of the controversy. Most experts agree that the best tests are ones that measure what students know in relation to what they are supposed to have learned. These tests are called "criterion referenced" or "standards based." Tests like these, especially when they include writing or problem solving, are useful for both teachers and parents to make sure students are on track for their grade level.
However, since these standards-based tests are more difficult to create and administer, some states use commercially produced national tests to measure student learning, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, ninth edition (Stanford 9 or SAT 9). These "off-the-shelf" tests are not designed to demonstrate whether students have learned specific skills or parts of the curriculum; rather, they only show how well students perform compared to others nationally (this is called "norm referenced"). Many states have made progress toward measuring specific skills and mastery of the curriculum by gradually adding standards-based tests that are given along with the norm-referenced tests.