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How to Reverse the Trend of Educational Failure in the U.S.

Standardized Testing is not the Answer

This is the third in a three-part series of blogs on declining student performance in our schools. In the first blog I pointed out that the mean SAT reading scores of U.S. high school students have fallen to their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, dropping four points in the last four years to 497, and only 43 percent of test takers achieved a total score indicating they are likely to succeed in college. In my second blog I looked at school accountability, teacher performance, and cheating in the schools. In this blog I question whether standardized testing is partly to blame for the disappointing results and what factors might be contributing to educational decline in the U.S.

Standardized tests have been touted as the best way to ensure that students all over the country are learning a specific curriculum to enhance test evaluation and comparability of scores over time. In these tests all students answer the same questions, usually in multiple-choice format, and each question has only one correct answer. They reward the ability to quickly answer superficial questions that do not require real thought. They do not measure the ability to think or create in any field. Their use encourages a narrowed curriculum, outdated methods of instruction, and harmful practices such as retention in grade and tracking. Some criticize standardized testing because teachers teach to the test rather than instill in students the analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills so essential to be competitive in an increasingly globalized and technology-oriented world.  

Standardized tests are based in behaviorist psychological theories from the nineteenth century. While our understanding of the brain and how people learn and think has progressed enormously, tests have remained the same. Behaviorism assumed that knowledge could be broken into separate bits and that people learned by passively absorbing these bits. Today, cognitive and developmental psychologists understand that knowledge is not separable bits and that people (including children) learn by connecting what they already know with what they are trying to learn. If they cannot actively make meaning out of what they are doing, they do not learn or remember. But most standardized tests do not incorporate the modern theories and are still based on recall of isolated facts and narrow skills.

Multiple-choice tests are a very poor yardstick of student performance. They do not measure the ability to write, to use math, to make meaning from text when reading, to understand scientific methods or reasoning, or to grasp social science concepts. Nor do these tests adequately measure thinking skills or assess what people can do on real-world tasks.

Standardized, multiple choice tests were not originally designed to provide help to teachers. Classroom surveys show teachers do not find scores from standardized tests very helpful, so they rarely use them. The tests do not provide information that can help a teacher understand what to do next in working with a student because they do not indicate how the student learns or thinks. Good evaluation would provide helpful information to teachers.

The question really is whether there are better ways to evaluate student achievement or ability? The answer is “yes.’ Good teacher observation, documentation of student work, and performance-based assessment, all of which involve the direct evaluation of student effort on real learning tasks, provide useful material for teachers, parents, the community and the government. However, there is one aspect that can’t be measured and is largely behind the declining test scores, -- the declining work ethic in society. I see it all too often in my college classes. Even bright students lack the motivation to put the hours in to learn the material and look for the easy way out. They look for shortcuts, search the Internet for term papers that can be purchased online, and they outright cheat. What’s worse is that many of them see nothing wrong with their behavior and use the excuse that “everyone does it” as the rationalization for their unethical actions.

Unfortunately, student cheaters are only mimicking what is all too prevalent in society especially the business world. We have been bombarded with stories of fraud in the government, Medicare programs, the financial services industry, housing, insider trading and Ponzi schemes. Until we get our ethical house in order including re-creating the work ethic that was responsible for “American Exceptionalism,” we are likely to simply remain afloat all the while treading water to stay even with students from other countries and trying to avoid being overcome by the Chinese.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 28, 2011