The future of standardized testing


Charlotte Subak, Investigative Journalist

Standardized tests. For anyone who’s ever taken one, the words likely fill you with anxiety, dread, and even fear. For anyone lucky enough to have avoided them thus far, allow me to enlighten you. In the words of New Paltz high school junior Angelina TB, “just hearing the words [standardized test] makes my heart start racing and my palms get sweaty.”

Students sit in a single seat for several hours, pouring over their test booklets and filling in their multiple choice bubble sheets. Read and answer a question, mark the answer on your bubble sheet. Answer a question, mark it on your sheet. And on and on and on. “They feel like they go on forever,” TB continues. Not to mention, it feels as though your entire fate rests on those tests. The results of them are often large determining factors for the next steps of your education.

We know that standardized testing is restricting and damaging to students, teachers and schools alike, and it is at the forefront of the many fundamental issues in the USA’s education system. The key to fixing our education system is overhauling standardized testing policies and finding a way to accurately, effectively, and productively assess students. Improving the way students are assessed will allow struggling schools and students to be identified and properly helped. In today’s technology driven world, there are countless alternatives to traditional standardized tests, giving us the opportunity to revolutionize the education system forever.

In recent years, countless studies have been published arguing against standardized tests. Many students, teachers, parents and even scientists dislike them. Research has proven that standardized tests are ineffective measures of student progress and reap very little benefit, and can even be harmful to the students themselves. So why are they still here? And not only that, but why are we administering more than ever?

Well, it may seem that it’s because no one has any better ideas. But that isn’t true, there are entire communities of people, and even entire industries, dedicated to improving or even replacing standardized tests all together. Across the country, and even around the world, there has been a massive push to overhaul the current standardized testing policies. And some people have already done this, most with tremendous success.

The purpose behind standardized tests is that by having a common measurement for all students across the US, the government could compare this data to identity struggling schools and provide necessary aid. This is still a good idea, however, this is not the purpose that standardized tests have come to serve. Now, they act as an all inclusive measure of a students ability, and their scores often follow them for the large majority of their academic careers.

The students’ test scores are also often used in a similar way for teachers, measuring their capability as a teacher and sometimes even determining their compensation. Although this is equally problematic, this article will mainly focus on how the tests affect students.

Before we can fix standardized tests, we need to understand what is wrong with them, and why they need to change. One of the major problems with them is, quite literally, in the name. Standardized Tests are standard, meaning every single one is the same, testing the exact same thing in the exact same way, and grading all the answers exactly the same. However, students are not all the same, some would argue that no two students are exactly the same. Trying to force all students to fit onto one measurement is extremely problematic, and helps no one.

According to US News, “At the front line, teachers are faced with many challenges on a daily basis: huge variation within one classroom. Students can fall all along the spectrum in cognitive, developmental and psychological abilities. Massive amounts of material need to be taught, including effective use of ever changing technology”.

Another major problem with standardized tests is its  effect on students’ mentally. Tests are extremely stressful and put a tremendous amount of pressure on kids from a very young age. Not only are they stressful short term, but they have been linked to long term mental illnesses such as anxiety, ADHD, and depression. They also often have negative effects on students attitudes, both towards school and in general. They make them dread learning and school because of the tests attached to it. They also can have major negative effects on kids self- esteem and self-image.  

Reports have pointed at “Parents, teachers, administrators, school and private mental health professionals report student nausea, dizziness, crying, vomiting, panic attacks, tantrums, headaches, loss of bowel or bladder control, near-fainting, sleeplessness, refusal to go to school, freaking out, meltdowns, depression, suicide threats and suicide attempts.”

We know that standardized tests are not the right choice for our schools, and plenty of people have made their opinions clear on the issue, so, what can we do about it? In order to improve this aspect of the education system, there are two main things we need to change. First, we need to change the theories and ideas driving the system, in other words we need to change why we test.

Secondly, we need to change how we test. If we can set our priorities straight and design an education system that is in the best interest of students, we can let those principles guide our approach to education, and therefore what happens in the classroom.

Around the world, similar debates are taking place, and have been for quite some time. In some countries, these debates have long since ended, and education is nearly unrecognizable when compared with that of the US. Take Finland for example, they constantly top the world education rankings, beating out the US, which consistently falls much lower, and is in the 14th spot as of the 2019 first quarter rankings.

According to Big Think, Finland, “routinely outperforms the United States in reading, science, and mathematics. And it has been a top performer since the first Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) triennial international survey back in 2000.”

There is no reason that a wealthy first world country such as the US should fall so low. So what are we missing? What does Finland know that we don’t? There are several major differences between the education systems of Finland and the US, but one of the most glaring differences is the country’s approach to standardized testing.

Finland has almost no standardized testing. They still use assessments to measure the progress of learning nationally, however, they do not have standardized tests like the US. These test results are only for school administrators to use to improve their schools, and the results are rarely made public. Specific scores have no impact on the students or teachers. Unlike the US, the scores are not tied to funding or used to rank schools. Finland has different methods of assessing students that are specifically designed to further learning and help students grow.

Cartoon by Adam Zyglis. Standardized testing is designed to fit the needs of the government, and in doing so completely sacrifices the needs of students.

This practice stems from the country’s ideology and beliefs about education. Big Think goes on to say that, “Finland’s education system works because its entire structure has been around several core principles. First and foremost, equal access to education is a constitutional right. Another important principle is that one should be allowed to choose their educational path, which should never lead to a dead end.” Finland’s education system is about developing students to their full potential and preparing them to live fulfilling lives. It is not about training them to get the highest test scores and compete with other students. This non-reliance on standardized tests allows Finland to customize education to the best interest of each student, which in turn helps them reach their full academic potential.

People across the US are starting to take notice of this research and realizing that changes need to be made. People are both following the examples of other countries such as Finland as well as developing their own solutions. There are many promising alternatives to standardized testing and alterations on current tactics that are currently in the works in the US. These alternatives can be broken down into five basic categories: sample-based assessments, performance-based assessments, stealth/constant assessments, student self-assessment, and multiple measures.

Sample-based assessments can be implemented in two ways, but the general premise is to reduce the amount of testing. The first way is to reduce the literal number of tests given to students each year, and lower the stakes of each test. One main issue with tests is how much class time they take up. Teachers and students spend lots of time preparing for tests and taking tests, while that time could be used for other, more valuable lessons. By reducing the number of tests, tests become less apart of students lives and class time can be used more effectively.

For example, at the NYC iSchool students are only required to take five of the state mandated  regents exams, as opposed to other schools where students may take upwards of nine. An NYC iSchool sophomore who wishes to remain nameless says, “It’s really nice that we don’t have to take as many [regents] because they are really stressful and it means we can choose more classes that are interesting to us.” Students can customize their schedules to fit their personal needs and interests and only take more exams if it works for them.

The second way sampling can be used is by forgoing traditional testing and its consequences entirely, and testing only a representative sample of students from each school in each grade as opposed to every single student. The scores would be used only for constructive purposes for the school and would have no effect on the students. This would take the pressure off students while achieving the same result. The purpose of standardized tests is to gauge the progress of schools on a consistent measure so that aid can be awarded appropriately. This form of sample testing would serve this same purpose with equal effectiveness, just without the unnecessary pressure and stress on the students.

Another main issue with tests is the way in which they are administered, and what they are testing for. For this, many believe the solution is performance-based assessments. These can take shape in several forms, portfolio-based assessments, game-based assessments, and adaptive testing, all of which has the common goal of accurately and effectively measuring student understanding of a topic, as well as testing and developing higher order thinking skills.

Portfolio-based assessments are when instead of administering standardized tests to measure a students understanding of a topic, the student is assessed through projects. Throughout a school year, students put together a portfolio of their best work in each subject. Teachers then grade and provide feedback on these pieces. Students and teachers may meet periodically throughout the year and discuss the portfolios together. This also allows for students to reflect and teachers to monitor students’ progression.

Instead of  a traditional state mandated final exams, teachers may assign a final project in order to assess students. These are much more effective than traditional testing because they test important skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and time management as opposed to just memorization of facts. These skills are crucial to a good education and preparing students for the world. Standardized tests do not exist once students leave school, but projects are a part of almost any job. Projects also allow assessment to become a part of the learning process, and actually further students learning instead of just measuring it as a traditional test would do.

Game-based testing is another way performance-based assessments can be utilized. Game-based testing may sound childish and useless, and admittedly it is still in its early stages of development, but it shows huge potential. Real time interactive games that record a students every move require students to react and adapt as things happen, which is a very important skill. Student cannot simply memorize every possible answer for a game, so this model can actually test the students true understanding of content beyond just memorization of facts.

Another advantage of game-based testing is that it can be much more engaging for students than traditional tests. Low test scores are not always a result of a lack of understanding, but rather a lack of focus and motivation. This is particularly true in younger students who have shorter attention spans and may find it difficult to sit in one place and answer monotonous test questions. The interactive element of games could prove quite useful for eliminating this discrepancy in testing, and help to provide more accurate results.

Another way to implement the performance-based method is adaptive testing. Adaptive testing could be considered a variation on game-based testing as it too centers around using software to improve the testing experience. The idea is that the test adapts and changes it future questions based on the accuracy of a student answers in certain categories. The test could add or take away questions on a certain topic based on a students proficiency in that area, and adjust question difficulty levels accordingly. This would give each student an individual testing experience and allow more meaningful data to be gleaned from tests. This would also improve the students’ experiences because the test would become tailored exactly to fit the needs of each student.

This can also transfer over to regular coursework, tailoring the difficulty levels so that if a student is weaker in some subject areas it does not hold them back in other ones. For example, if a student is very strong in science, but a weak reader, the software can tailor the reading level of their science coursework so it does not hold them back.

Another increasingly popular alternative to standardized testing is stealth/constant assessment. This approach is about using software to track students answers to every question, so that student progress, and student strengths and weaknesses, can be measured and tracked over time. This completely eliminates the pressure and stress associated with testing, and provides a more well- rounded picture of a students abilities.

Many student crack under the pressure of tests and perform more poorly than they otherwise would. If students are consistently measured through many different work environments, a more accurate picture will emerge. This also allows for the elimination of wasting class time on test preparation, and frees it up for more useful activities. There are already companies such as Khan Academy, Scholastic, and DreamBox using these technologies. This also allows other types of data to be collected, such as how fast students learn.

Some schools are starting to take a different route to assessment entirely. No one knows what students need more than the students themselves, so some schools have started to ask them, and make the students active in assessing and improving themselves. This can be done mainly through self-assessment and student surveys.

Self-assessment usually involves students’ reflecting on themselves and their work through writing and conversations with their teachers. Self-assessment is not usually sufficient on its own, however, it is very valuable to both students and schools, so it is often combined with another alternative method such as performance-based assessments.

Another way to give students a more active role is student surveys. The goal of the surveys are to identify struggling schools and schools in need of additional aid, which was the original idea behind standardized tests.

The surveys could cover topics such as the student’s day-to-day experience in school and their interactions with peers and teachers. According to Otus the surveys could also measure areas such as “measures hope, engagement, and well-being. Research shows these are indicators of success, linked to grades, retention, and employment.” These results would then be paired with general information about the students demographic to provide a picture of how different types of students are faring in different schools.

Student surveys can also be used for improvement purposes within a school. At the NYC iSchool, at the end of every quarter students have the opportunity to complete forms reflecting on the experiences they had in a certain course they took that quarter. The students’ responses are then given to the teacher of that course to help the teacher improve the course in the future. In the words of sophomore Ada Cowan, “I like the course evaluations because they make students’ voices heard and let you give your teacher feedback.”

The final alternative to standardized testing is a multiple measures approach. A multiple measures approach is executed by taking a big data approach to schools. Schools would collect mass amounts of data about their students from the time they enter the school until well after they leave, collecting data on their college success, careers, and salary, to determine what schools are preparing their students for life.

However, student success cannot truly be represented with just numbers and data, the heart of the multiple measures approach consists of combining multiple types of alternative testing to get the most comprehensive results. This approach can look different everywhere and truly be tailored to meet the needs of each individual school. It can include any version of the alternative methods discussed in this article as well as any other measures that are deemed fit. This is the most realistic way that these measures can be implemented, as any single measure by itself is not necessarily sufficient. When used in combination with one another, the best possible results can be achieved for everyone involved.

This cartoon in based off the Albert Einstein quote, “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.”

These alternative measures are not just a fantasy, they have already begun to be tested and implemented around the country, many of them with tremendous success. For most schools looking to transition, performance-based assessment, usually in the form of projects, are the most obvious choice because they allow the school to keep the same structure and simply replace their standardized tests with projects.

New York State is home to the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The consortium, “consists of 28 schools, grades 6-12, throughout New York State that rely on these teacher-created assessments to the exclusion of standardized tests. These public schools tend to show higher graduation rates and better college-retention rates, while serving a population similar to that of other urban schools.” These schools use Performance-Based Assessment Tasks (PBATs) to assess student knowledge and comprehension while building important life skills and eliminating the problems associated with traditional standardized tests.

According to The Washington Post, “The college persistence data show that the extensive reading, writing and long-term planning required for the performance assessments prepare students well for higher education.” The Post continues, “Ninety-one percent of students in the consortium are accepted to college, versus 63% for New York City as a whole. Less than 10% of students in the consortium dropout of high school versus a 19% high school dropout rate across the city, according to the consortium”. The schools serve a similar population, if not slightly more disadvantaged than other NYC schools, and consistently produce better results.

Education is imperative to the future of our world, and we must insure that our education system is providing students with the best education we are capable of giving them. There are clear issues with our current standardized testing policies, and something needs to be done to fix them. There are endless possibilities, and now we need to figure out what option will be best for our students, and make it happen.

“Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.”

-Albert Einstein