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Gap #5: What are the Pros and Cons of Standardized Tests?

Summary: Experts and members of the public agree that there are both pros and cons associated with standardized testing, but they diverge substantially in how they define those positive and negative features and how they understand the purposes and applications of this type of assessment.

Both experts and members of the public spoke at length about the benefits of standardized testing for the purpose of fairness. For experts, this focus on fairness was oriented towards a social justice perspective — using standardized testing as a way to make comparisons across schools, districts and populations to identify and reduce disparities in educational resources and outcomes.

“But those kinds of tests [tests designed by individual teachers] are completely inadequate for judging whether or not students in different parts of a school district, or students taking classes from different teachers, are getting the same opportunities to learn, and…are not experiencing an educational system that is systematically biased against students of their particular race, or color, or gender. So, for making those kinds of determinations, we really need an assessment process that is more standardized, and that is basically subjecting all students to the same input and same output requirements. And so that we can make determinations about the adequacy of the educational system for different kinds of students, it really requires that we have standardized assessments. And if the school wants to know, how are we doing, relative to other schools in our state, or relative to other schools in the country, then a different kind of assessment is needed. You can’t answer those questions well with a test that differs from student to student, or class to class, or school to school.”

Expert informants also explained that standardized tests can help identify specific programs or approaches, both those that are underperforming and those that are succeeding, and that these data can be used to inform and target interventions to improve conditions in schools or districts that are most in need. They also argued that standardized tests, when effectively designed and administered, can be important mechanisms for assuring that all students are achieving proficiency in critical skills. In each of these ways, experts assert that standardized tests can help create a more fair education system that works equally well for all students.

“Using…standardized tests we find out what methods of instruction, which head start programs, which follow-through programs are most effective, so that those successes could be disseminated.” -- “If you believe that certain schools are systematically depriving their students of opportunities to learn or that certain teachers are in need of additional training and are doing a disservice to their students, then the only way that we can tell is to have a common instrument that allows for comparison of students to each other, to students in other classrooms and to students in other schools.”

Public informants also talked about fairness, but from a very different perspective. They saw standardized tests as a “fair” way to differentiate between students — as a way to “objectively” assess skills and abilities for tracking and, as was most frequently discussed, college placement. They saw a need for this kind of assessment to establish a consistent bar across the country against which to compare students, and differentiate those who perform and achieve at different levels. While the expert model of fairness operates at the level of populations, the public’s model is clearly focused on fairness as an objective way to differentiate between individual students.

Audio

What do you think the argument for standardized tests is?

The argument for is that, in general, there are, I guess, statewide there are things that a student should learn. There are things that that student - every student - is taught the same information by these guidelines. They should be able to be tested on that and if they don't do well, then they didn't accomplish the goals set in place by the state that has said a student should learn X, Y, and Z.

Interestingly, public criticism of standardized tests is also undergirded by a model of fairness, but by a very different version of this value. Public informants critiqued standardized tests by asserting that not every child is a good test-taker, and that assessments should account for the fact that people have different learning and testing styles. From this perspective, informants explained that standardized tests are not “fair,” because they do not account for variation among individual students, and do not account for students who struggle with test anxiety or otherwise do not “test well.” This critique builds off of a more a fundamental model in which “every child is different,” one that FrameWorks has observed across the range of our research on education and children’s issues.iv

Audio

So when those two words appear together in the same sentence—assessment and education—where does that take you?

I think for some people they test really well. Other people, I don't think the testing model works for them and therefore it isn't an accurate depiction of what they know so that kind of assessment I think is a false reading.

Notably, both the public’s support for standardized testing as a necessary means of distinguishing among a competitive field of students, and their critique of that testing as not honoring variations among students, are premised in a more foundational, underlying model of individualism, one that assumes the individual as the level of focus and agent of responsibility for outcomes. In the case of public support for standardized tests, the individual is understood as one competitor among many in a marketplace of educational and career opportunities. In the public’s criticism of these same tests, every individual is different from the next, and these variations must be taken into account for how students are treated by society. While each of the public’s models of fairness takes thinking in different directions relative to the specific topic of standardized tests, both are rooted in a deeper, more fundamental American cultural model.

iv
See Chart, H., & Kendall-Taylor, N. (2008). Reform what? Individualist thinking in education: American cultural models on schooling. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute; and Kendall-Taylor, N., & Lindland, E. (2010). “It’s just a fancier book”: Mapping the gaps between the expert and the public understandings of digital media and learning. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.
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