The Value of Standardized Testing

In the field of education, knowledge is power. A recent New York Times article outlined potential new legislation in Texas, House Bill 866, which would allow elementary school students who excel at state reading and math exams in the third and fourth grade, to skip exams in those subjects in the fourth, sixth, and seventh grades. As an educator and researcher, with a doctorate in education with a specialty in curriculum and instruction, and a Ph.D. in psychology, I have spent the last two decades studying the way children learn. Therefore, I felt it necessary to respond to the New York Times article, and speak to the value of standardized testing.

We must not fear that which can offer us the best possible opportunity to transfer information in the most effective way. One important measure for that transfer is the standardized test. Such testing gives the teacher important diagnostic information about what each child is learning in relation to what he has been taught. Only in this way can the teacher know if the student needs intervention and remediation; if the curriculum matches the course requirements; or if the teaching methods needed are in some way lacking and require adjustment.

Furthermore, the standardized test gives valuable insight into broader issues, such as the standard curriculum important to grade level requirements, and an education reference point for fair and equitable education for all children in all schools – district by district and state by state. This can also lead to better teaching skills, as teachers will be held accountable to help their students meet these standards.

Moreover, student growth can be a very significant outcome of standardized tests, for though a child may return a low score he may show a growth pattern that is positive. These tests are but one tool that a teacher uses to diagnose her students’ teaching needs, so that an individual and child-centered curriculum can be developed.

The standardized test is an objective and critical measure of achievement in skills, knowledge, and abilities, and must pass the criteria of measurement validity, reliability, and bias, as well as an awareness of the test’s potential limitations in scoring.

As a result, it is important to avoid the unintended consequences of labeling and stressing children, or creating an overall atmosphere of competition and cheating as seen in the now famous movie Cheaters, based on the story of the L. A. Decathlon competition in which a teacher felt pressured to assist his students to cheat.

The key to good standardized testing is to test twice a year, both spring and fall, to prepare children and to communicate to them that this is just one vehicle to help assess their achievement. Therefore, it is valuable to get the students’ feedback, so that they can have a voice in the process and be invested – not only in the remediation phase, but also in future test outcomes. Then there are alternative assessment models such as classroom performance, teacher observation, subject testing and communication, which offer a balanced and equivalent evaluation in high stake decisions such as tracking, high school graduation, or retention.

Finally, it is true that some teachers will find the need to teach to a standard test. But even in this instance, it has been shown that children can get the benefit of the overall curriculum requirements for their grade level. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather use the test format as a catalyst to both examine teaching pedagogy and evaluate student performance.