288 Days ’til 40: Standardized Testing Woes

09 May

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Albert Einstein

“Believing we can improve schooling with more tests is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height.” Robert Schaeffer of FairTest

“Anyone can confirm how little the grading that results from examinations corresponds to the final useful work of people in life.” Jean Piaget

I suppose that my post today is a bit of a soapbox…..  This week our school is giving all of our students standardized tests.  This, coupled with the fact that I have learned I must take the GRE before I can even consider applying to PhD or EdD programs (even though I have a Master’s Degree) has me thinking a lot about standardized tests……  should they be allowed?  are they useful?  are they evil?

According to Peter Sacks, “Americans are taking as many as 600 million standardized tests each year in schools, colleges, and universities, and the workplace.”  I find this figure to be a bit disturbing…. do we need to take this many tests?  I realize that I end up having very moderate feelings on this issue.  I do believe there is a PLACE for testing in schools/ organizations and society, but that sometimes the emphasis becomes wholly out of balance and that can be dangerous.  I do believe we learn something when our students take the MAP test at our school.  We test them in the fall and spring and we are able to track academic growth.  We also receive valuable feedback as a school – if our third grade students are not progressing as they should in language arts or math, we are able to identify this as a problem and then go back and analyze our curriculum to understand where we made mistakes in our instructional strategies.

Additionally, the test does give us a picture of the current instructional level of each student, allowing us to pinpoint and focus on the areas of instruction they need.

Yet, when I am put in that position of being the one tested, I tend to have different ideas about the usefulness and validity.  In order to even think about applying for programs, as I mentioned above, I have to take the GRE.  I graduated from high school quite a long time ago (I am almost 40, you do the math!)  I was so advanced in HS math that I did not have to take any in college… which means I have not seen complex math problems for @ 22 years.  Yet, I will be tested on coordinate geometry and probability and the ability to calculate the area of a triangle within a circle.  Please tell me, if I have not needed these skills in over 22 years, why on earth do I need to prove I can calculate them in order to get into graduate school?  Will my ability to remember the Pythagorean theorem REALLY have an effect on how I organize myself to write a dissertation?  It seems so silly to me.

“If more testing were the answer to the problems in our schools, testing would have solved them a long time ago.” Bill Goodling, chair of House Education Committee.  I agree with him completely – and I would have to wonder if we are focusing on the wrong thing.  I know of individuals who could not organize themselves to follow through and get good grades when in school, but managed to secure spaces in high-ranking colleges due to high SAT scores.  These students were brilliant, but in the end did not make it in university because they needed someone to help them organize their time.  On the other hand, I have known individuals who did not get into their top choice universities because their SAT scores were too low…  they went to a junior college, then a university, and are much more successful than some people who scored high…. showing that perhaps a standardized test is not really the best indicator of collegiate or life success.  (My partner often will comment about the fact that these tests are not infallible, but something is needed to weed through the applicants and at least these tests are that something.)

So, in the end, I see the value of the tests in my professional life, but in my personal life I dread taking the GRE and I worry that I will have to take it multiple times before I reach the minimum score necessary to apply to PhD Programs (if I choose to apply in the future).  I will leave you with this quote by Bill Ayers: “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”

Today, 288 days ’til 40, I continue to ponder the value of standardized testing… what do you think?



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35 responses to “288 Days ’til 40: Standardized Testing Woes

  1. introvertedknitter

    May 9, 2012 at 00:09

    Some schools in the humanities that require the GRE are usually looking at the general test score, which may not be as affected by your math score. Also there are free online practice tests available, if you feel the urge to try. I agree that there may be too many standardized tests out there, and too often teachers and professors are pressed to teach to the test, making learning outside of the testing zones a lot harder to come by. Best of luck should you end up taking the GRE. Great post and good insight on the different perspectives.

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 08:33

      I have been overwhelming myself with practice tests! I just think we need to find that balance and be well aware of the reality that testing results do not necessarily acknowledge the full picture of past learning or future success.

  2. irishsignora

    May 9, 2012 at 04:00

    The overreliance on standardized testing is one big reason this former teacher retred to homeschool her four children 🙂 Cheers! Kelly

  3. ghfool

    May 9, 2012 at 04:20

    I have taken the PSAT, SAT, GMAT, LSAT, Bar Exam and the ASSPEE (Aero Space Super Planetary Exploration Exam) and passed them all in the top percentile. However, I am a complete idiot!

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 08:32

      🙂 I also find that testing abilities and common sense or ability to function in the world do not always correlate.

  4. MLHawke

    May 9, 2012 at 04:53

    Ohhh boy, this is a can of worms, isn’t it?

    My husband is a teacher, but he teaches music, so he doesn’t have to do a lot of “teaching to the test.” But the more I hear about school districts laying off teachers because of poor results on standardized tests, the more I think that standardized testing is NOT the way to go. It’s not necessarily the teachers fault the kids did poorly on a test. Maybe the kids don’t test well. Maybe the teacher isn’t able to teach the things they’re best at teaching, because what they prefer to teach isn’t on the tests.

    I could go on and on about this, but I won’t. Not here anyway. If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a link! 😉

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 08:31

      Yes, it certainly does open a can of worms….. I am often saddened by the unfair pressure placed on teachers to get their students to pass tests… I want our teachers to help our students learn – to help each student progress as much as the student can… sometimes reaching goals set by non-educators at the policy levels does not really mean that the child has learned… they have just managed to memorize what they need to to perform like the nice politicians want them to (sense some biases here?) 🙂

      • MLHawke

        May 16, 2012 at 03:55

        Oh, I agree with you 1,000,000%, and I’m not even a teacher!
        I am a social worker by training, but have spent some time in schools. In my realm of social work, I see the end effects of policy – I work with the people who receive cash benefits from the state, and a lot of the population I work with are affected by policies that people who don’t know a THING about the situations are writing…
        So… I can feel the seething from here, because I do the same thing! =)

        • 400daystil40

          May 16, 2012 at 10:19

          Yes!!! I have more understanding of the problem right now than the solution… but I know the testing is NOT the solution!

  5. allthingsboys

    May 9, 2012 at 05:00

    It sorta reminds me of people believing that in order to be a great teacher you needed a degree. You can be an awful teacher with a degree. It just depends on the individual.

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 08:29

      So VERY true – I find that all the time! I know of people without degrees who are amazing teachers and people with degrees who should banned from being anywhere near children.

  6. sahbinahvioletflynn

    May 9, 2012 at 05:31

    Your post today was as balanced as it was thought provoking. As a parent, I’ve always felt the standardized testing only encouraged “teaching to the test” and left out the whole realm of learning for students that are creative and think outside the box. Do we really want to keep turning out students that are good at taking tests or do we want innovators, collaborators and creative problem solvers? As a senior, my son was spared the standardized testing this year. The last time he took them his scores went down. When I asked him why, he told me he was so bored that he just created a design when filling in his answers on the “scan tron” (the “drunken monkey” method). I admonished him, but I could sympathize too. Because test scores are tied to funding in our state (and the threat of being taken over by the Board of Ed if they are too low) there have been allegations of cheating etc. in some districts, which is a really sad state of affairs.

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 08:28

      Yes, I find it so awful how so many teach to the test and leave the true teaching behind. I do not let our teachers teach to the test…. something that surprised them when I came in as an administrator. I told them that if they are doing their job well, the kids will do well on the test without being trained to take it. You know what happened? The test scores improved. So simple, so profound, common sense, yet most schools govern out of fear and won’t let go and just teach.

  7. rabidmongoose

    May 9, 2012 at 06:15

    My SAT scores are the one shining light of my high-school days…don’t take that away! 🙂 Seriously, I’d like to see more testing (if you can believe it), or perhaps replace some current standardized tests with EQ-testing.

  8. Spider42

    May 9, 2012 at 10:04

    It’s a conundrum.

    At core I completely agree with you – there should be some flexibility and adaptation to specific situations when it comes to testing and things like admissions (like the GRE you have to take).
    However the dilemma becomes, like with most other ‘systems’, that there will always be people who will eagerly misuse those precedents and such.
    This is not an unsolvable problem in and of itself, but to first of all change existing systems and practices is a big enough cudgel for most folks to be apprehensive about taking up, but to consider dealing with the repercussions and all that? Never underestimate the power of bureaucracy, self-interest and apathy – all of these (and other such) even in small doses become deadly to change and evolution of things when combined into one more cohesively powerful entity.

    Or maybe I’m just being more morose about it than needed. Eh, c’est la vie…

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 21:58

      What you say is so very true… I think this is why my partner refers to tests as a necessary evil.

      • Spider42

        May 10, 2012 at 08:45

        Unfortunately far too many things are…

  9. Jenny Friedl

    May 9, 2012 at 10:31

    Good to hear that there are more people pondering about the usefulness of tests – either at secondary or tertiary education or the work place to evaluate the progress of learning or the extension of knowledge. The funny thing I experience at my department is that we know all about cognitive and emotional processes of information processing – theoretically – but we neither use this knowledge to create environments and curriculaes who match this knowledge nor do we apply this knowlegde in the extent to give students opportunities to learn effectively and as you so beautifully conclude with Bill Ayers quote, to give people a real chance to be creative, curious, commited, and engaged. Not to speak of students who only see a past test as a confirmation for being worthy students. The question is, why do we learn, do we learn because to be accepted by peers, parents and the society, or do we learn because we experience learning as meaningful and developing?
    I hope you are going to apply for a PhD – people like you are needed to make the world a better place.

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 21:58

      What a great comment! I agree with you, we need to question why we are learning. I want my children to learn because they have an inner desire for knowledge, not to pass some exam so they can better compete….

  10. shu

    May 9, 2012 at 11:57

    testing has a scary multiplier effect – students who get into their desired ‘elite’ schools face greater pressure to get even better grades in their new ‘testing environment’. In some schools there is this concept of the ‘bell curve’ grading – meaning students are graded in relative to other students in the same course. As a result there will always be a student with a bad grade.

    In ‘elite’ schools, this poses a great problem.. we start to have students who are bright but failing and retaining in good schools. If they were in a less popular school, they would have very well passed with flying colours.

    • 400daystil40

      May 9, 2012 at 21:57

      Wow, what an important point you bring up! I remember feeling rather stupid in high school because I could only get C’s in English (was in an honor’s class among some very strong students)…. I was shocked when I got to university and realized I was not as stupid as I had thought….. when I was with normal people in courses that were not leveled I found out I was higher on that bell curve than I had thought…… If a child is really bright enough to get into an elite school, perhaps the school is a school that has to consider dropping the curve and grading students based on what they really deserve.

  11. New Hampshire Garden Solutions

    May 9, 2012 at 17:46

    I have to agree with Bill Ayers. I never saw the value in so many tests. From what I saw they made kids so nervous that they couldn’t remember the material that they were being tested on. Between the constant testing and being buried under far too much homework, kids don’t have time to just be kids anymore. Personally, I’d rather have my child be a happy janitor than a neurotic rocket scientist.

  12. Patrice

    May 10, 2012 at 02:41

    Hi, 400 days, you’ll do fine. I worried, too, since I hadn’t take a test in 10 years. I studied online for 4 days and some how my math score (my toughest subject in high school and college) was the highest on my GMAT? Go figure.

    The great thing about my Masters program was the Dean truly valued what we had to say and to share, our experiences and accomplishments, and our past GPAs, in addition to our GMAT scores. It was a Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness Management degree; the Dean set the pace and raised the bar by his actions.

    • 400daystil40

      May 10, 2012 at 08:23

      Thank you so much for your words of encouragement! The irony is, like you, I did very well in my masters program….. I am hoping that track record will supersede my scores on the GRE for PhD programs, if I do apply. I took some practice tests and did abysmally…… so we will see… I have a couple weeks left to study before I take it (I will have had about three weeks in total to review… you know, in between working @ 60 hours a week, feeding and clothing kids, etc.!) 🙂

      • Patrice

        May 10, 2012 at 13:24

        You will do great! Keep taking the practice tests in the same format as you will take the GRE. Don’t worry about how you do, just keep taking them – primes the brain and will build your confidence with the process. You obviously have the smarts already! And, it may sound silly, but picture yourself getting your scores and being excited about them or calling someone close to you to tell them your scores. Visualizing a positive outcome and really savoring those feelings connects sweet little receptors in your brain and can really help you relax. PS I love the photo in this post!

  13. Arlene Hittle

    May 10, 2012 at 03:13

    I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing. As a sophomore in high school, when I was taking classes with juniors and seniors, I had to miss a week’s worth of classes to take the ISTEP test (Indiana’s answer to the standardized test). I wrote a letter to the governor complaining about this fact and sent him a petition signed by other students who also detested the fact they were missing classes to take the stupid thing.

    As an education reporter covering standardized tests in Arizona (the AIMS), I still saw no use for them. A waste of time teachers should be using to teach something that matters.

    • 400daystil40

      May 10, 2012 at 08:29

      Wow, I am so impressed with the initiative you took as a student. I wonder what would happen if all students were brave enough to band together and protest these exams…. how would that force education to change? I agree with you and really have yet to see anyone who has found great value in them…. as I have said, we found value in them when we did NOT teach to them and did NOT use them to measure teacher ability. When we could really objectively look at growth and glean information it had some value for our school… but I really did tell my teachers that I did NOT want them to teach to the test and that if they were teaching effectively the curriculum that we developed then the tests should reflect that. I wish that more schools would agree with this philosophy.

  14. simon7banks

    May 14, 2012 at 17:31

    This is a different system from ours in the UK, but we have the same problem. As Einstein would have said, prioritising tests deprioritises creativity, since it isn’t capable of being reliably tested (I know IQ tests purport to do that, but they test mental agility which is not quite the same thing).

    As you say, the tests are valuable because they can point to areas of weakness, but if test results are used as measures of performance for teachers or schools, inevitably they teach to the tests and education narrows.

    The rules for progressing to a further academic level should be the same as for appointment to a job: is there evidence this person can do what is required? If the competition is tough – how strong is the evidence that they can do it very well? As with job appointments, factors irrelevant to the performance should be excluded. For example, to study history at university you need to be numerate and to have a basic understanding of graphs (and to be quite good at reading and writing whatever language will be used) and a foreign language or two can be helpful, but understanding of geometry and atomic physics is virtually irrelevant, important though these things are to society as a whole. An atomic physicist who understood history and valued poetry would very likely be a more fulfilled and interesting person than one who did not, but these areas are not necessary to doing a physics degree. So the system of education should encourage breadth, but the selection process should concentrate on what matters for that course.

    • 400daystil40

      May 14, 2012 at 22:56

      Very good points. I think the Americans could learn a lesson or two (or more) from the UK system.


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