Vivant Edu

Standardized tests are not the answer

Two recent My Turns (“A Healthy Future,” Monitor, 8/20 and “A Serious Approach,” Monitor, 8/29) both miss the mark when talking about public education and how we understand what it means to be successful for learners and public schools. If we are going to make public education better, we need to start with an honest conversation.

First, let’s just get this out of the way — our public schools are not perfect. They aren’t, and a lot of this imperfection has nothing to do with the teachers, but with the way the system is set up. Our schools were not designed to support the way we learn. Sure, some kids adapt to the structures of school quite successfully, but is that the best way for anyone to learn? No, not really. So, when kids can’t learn each subject in 45-minute blocks with 3-minute breaks in between and a twenty-minute lunch, we blame the teachers. After all, some of the kids can figure it out. Those others, they must not be smart, right? Wrong.

I’m not saying that all teachers are great teachers and the system is solely to blame, but I am saying that we would have much more learning going on if we stopped relying on the outdated structures like traditional schedules, grading and standardized tests both Moffett and Luneau are determined to use as the measure of success for both learners and schools.

I’m also saying that if we are going to make schools better, we can’t just focus on equitable funding. We must create policies and laws that are intended to make public school better, rather than the policies that work to dismantle it. I’m also saying that standardized tests should not be used as measures of learner success or school quality.

The standardized tests we use today come right out of the eugenics movement. They were created as a way to bring some order to college admissions. Instead of a portfolio filled with evidence of a student’s skills or a holistic review from secondary teachers about a student’s abilities, strengths and interests, the College Board chose an intelligence test.

That first test gave way to many other tests, including today’s SAT. They are all based on the same psychometric theories that posit “we can know if someone knows a thing from a multiple guess test taken on one day in strict conditions.” These are the same theories that were used to justify the sterilization of a generation of Black, brown and indigenous men, women and children. These theories are the ones we should eliminate from public schools.

Before we go further, we must talk about knowledge. How do we know someone knows a thing? There are lots of ways, of course. We might watch them create something. They might explain it to someone or write a reflection about it. The truth is, however, that we can only know what a student knows if they are willing to show us. We are relying on a test that so many kids find joyless, tedious and make them unwilling to show us.

You might say, “well that’s only some kids. Most kids want to show us what they know and can do on these tests.” Okay, let’s assume that’s true. We still have the problem of standardization which doesn’t allow flexible ways for learners to demonstrate their knowledge. Students either have to choose from multiple options or construct responses through writing. This is not the best way for all learners to express their knowledge.

Some are verbal and can speak their knowledge much better than they can write it. Many get tangled up in filling in the right circle, whether it’s on paper or computer. If you’ve ever learned to take a multiple-choice test like the SAT or the AP exam, you know that one answer is the best answer, and another is close but not quite the right answer. Add onto that the pressure of “the test.” Standardized tests are not responsive to each student in the classroom. They don’t account for culture, environment, interest or even how a kid was feeling that day, yet we aggregate them and lift them up as a measure of a good school, of student success.

Still not convinced that these tests are not good for schools or learners? Let’s shift to the impact they have had on the curriculum. When the quality of schools is based solely on the test, teachers focus on the test and preparing them for it. In New Hampshire, this means focusing on math, ELA and science, and only knowledge and discrete skills. These tests narrow our curriculum, because if the only measure a community cares about is the test, then everything else falls to the side.

Schools that do well on the test end up spending less time teaching to the test and can engage their kids in other learning, while schools that don’t do well spend more time teaching to the test and less time on other joyful, more meaningful, more transferable learning. When schools are focused on the test and the learning isn’t meaningful, some kids don’t want to do other things like maintain grades or come to school. It’s a sick cycle that allows kids who already have more to get more and kids who have less to get even less. 

Finally, let’s finally talk about what the tests can and cannot tell us, or attempt to tell us, about students. Standardized tests can only assess knowledge or very discreet skills. In Moffett’s My Turn, he lifts up the new civics requirement (memorizing facts for a short period of time in order to pass a test and to earn a diploma). We don’t have a better citizenry by ensuring people can memorize, we have a better citizenry when people understand how to act and are willing to act.

Citizenship is participatory. Yes, our learners should know about American history and how our government is set up. And they should be demonstrating their knowledge through authentic and engaging performance tasks that allow them to show deeper skills over time. Introducing one more standardized test isn’t going to make healthier schools or healthier communities — it’s a distraction from the real work of learning. 

If I have not yet convinced you that the tests are bad for NH learners and communities, I’m hoping that a reflection of your own testing experience can help. What is the correlation between your test scores and your success in life? How much time did you spend preparing for tests that distracted you from actual learning? What were your most powerful learning experiences from school? Were they studying for a test? Be honest. 

If not standardized tests, what could help us tell the story of learner and school success? New Hampshire teachers have been sitting on this answer for a long time. Performance assessment, portfolios, student-led conferences and exhibitions that are aligned with a community’s expectations and hopes for learners. These all tell a better story of a learner’s skills than a standardized test. Sure, they take more time than a test on one day in March, but our learners and schools are worth it.

In his My Turn, Mike Moffett says, “A new paradigm is desperately needed to reverse the downward trajectory of public support for public schools.” I agree with that statement, just not the logic he used to get there or the solutions he provides. We do need a paradigm shift and it starts with being honest about assessment. Who decides what success is and how do we know what learners have learned and can do? The traditional ways that have plagued us for so long can no longer be part of the equation if we are actually going to have a healthy public education system in New Hampshire. 

(Carisa Corrow is a NH educator and public school advocate. She lives in Penacook.)