President Obama and the leaders of the teachers unions disagree with the view of citizens that schools, educators, and students should be held accountable for their performance on standardized tests. Despite strong public support for testing programs, influential educators have defined standardized tests as beasts that should be removed from schools. To quote one prominent critic, Gerald Bracey, they are “infernal machines of social destruction.”
Political leaders have also revealed a deep misunderstanding about the purpose and use of standardized testing when they claim tests are too simple or too biased to measure up to the subjective judgments of educators themselves. Such claims are naïve or deliberately misleading.
Research and experience show that standardized tests are generally good at measuring students’ knowledge, skills, and understandings because they are objective, fair, efficient, and comprehensive. For these reasons, they are used for decisions about admission to colleges, graduate programs, and professional schools as well as qualification and licensing for many skilled occupations and demanding professions such as law and medicine.
Given the misleading information and expressed views of some politicians and union leaders, it is worthwhile to review here the more specific reasons for using standardized tests.
Student performance is a crucial element of a metaphorical three-legged stool that also includes standards and learning. When one leg is weak or missing, educational programs may be faulty, but if all three are strong, the programs can be strong. Standardized tests are used to measure the student performance leg of this stool.
If standardized tests are misused, of course, the program and student learning may be defective. When standardized tests are used appropriately, a great deal can be learned about how well schools function. That information allows educators and policymakers to make better-informed conclusions about how much students are learning, which in turn allows them to make better-informed decisions about improving programs.
Students benefit directly when they take tests that offer information on how well they have mastered the material intended for learning. School reading and mathematics skills, for example, can be precisely specified, and as students learn the skills, they benefit from ongoing information tailored to their specific, individual progress. Computers streamline this process by providing immediate feedback about correct and incorrect responses far more quickly and with much greater patience than teachers and tutors can provide.
Educators can better help students when they know how a student’s objective performance compares with others, and standardized tests can provide such information at low costs and very little class time. Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University’s Department of Economics and the Hoover Institution has estimated that that the costs of tests are less than 0.1 percent of total spending on K-12 education and amount to an average of less than $6 per student.
Comparative studies by John Bishop of Cornell University found that countries requiring students to take nationally standardized tests showed higher scores on international tests than those in countries not requiring such tests.
In a second study, Bishop found that U.S. students who anticipated having to pass a standardized test for high school graduation learned more science and math, were more likely to complete homework and talk with their parents about schoolwork, and watched less television than peers who were not required to pass such exams.
Those who argue against standardized tests say that holding educators and students accountable for only mathematics and reading encourages them to neglect history and science. But this is an argument for comprehensive and systematic testing across the entire curriculum, not an argument against standardized tests themselves.
Those who oppose standardized tests also argue that the tests can only measure simple facts students can memorize. But tests assessing advanced understanding and judgment do exist. They may, for instance, require respondents to select the best idea from a group of different and compelling positions. They may require respondents to identify the best reason for action, the best interpretation of a set of ideas, or the best application of important principles.
Another complaint against standardized tests is that they cause stress among educators and students. But the world outside of school is demanding. The knowledge economy increasingly demands more knowledge and better skills from workers, which require larger amounts of intense study of difficult subjects. Yet American students spend only about half the total study time that Asian students do in regular schools, in tutoring, and in homework, a major reason for their poor performance in international surveys. Thus, reasonable pressure and objective performance measurements are advisable for the future welfare of the students and the nation.
Source of Pride
Finally, some critics of testing complain that tests cause malaise among educators. But good schools focus on student learning, not on the satisfaction of the professional staff. If the data shows that testing benefits students, it should be pursued even if there isn’t unanimous teacher support.
Good student performance on tests should be a source of satisfaction among successful educators. The appropriate tests can reveal strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum and instruction. Our nation’s poor achievement progress shows that substantial improvements in teaching and learning are needed—and progress on those two fronts can and should be measured by standardized tests.
This essay is based on Walberg’s new book: Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform (Hoover Press), and is reprinted with permission.