The testing season in the public schools is upon us. Students in the local schools have begun their preparation for the PSSAs and administration of these tests begins in late April.
While this practice now appears familiar and a typical part of the rhythm of public school, the use of such tests is anything but neutral. Research suggests that this practice has serious negative consequences for students, teachers, and schools.
For students, there are at least three problems. 1) There is no data that high stakes tests improve learning. Contrary to the idea that high stakes tests help students learn more, there is virtually no research showing that such testing of children produces achievement gains or improves graduation rates. One 2012 study by Berliner, Nichols and Glass suggests that high stakes testing has not had any impact on student achievement over time. Furthermore, while the goal of instituting such tests was to reduce the achievement gap between income groups and between racial and ethnic groups, in most cases these tests have not influenced these outcomes, and where some gains have occurred, the tests themselves account for only marginal effects. 2) There is data to suggest that such tests actually reduce students’ motivation for learning. We have known for a long time that high stakes tests have negative consequences for encouraging a personal love of learning. Additionally, recent work by Brophy supports the idea that the pressure created by these tests is more likely to make students give up in the face of academic difficulty, rather than work harder. 3) One well known outcome of the wide-spread institution of high stakes testing is the increase in student test anxiety. A recent study by Segool and colleagues demonstrates that a sample of students in third, fourth and fifth grade reported significantly more overall test anxiety in relation to high-stakes testing versus conventional classroom testing.
The problems for students are just the beginning. Teachers, already under intense scrutiny in our society, are also feeling the negative effects. In Pennsylvania, at least 30 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation is based upon the standardized test scores of students in the classroom and in the school overall. Using this metric, however, is deeply problematic, according to the American Statistical Association because standardized test scores do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward student achievement. As a result, ranking teachers based upon these metrics can actually reduce teacher quality rather than enhance it.
Lastly, schools are also being damaged by the vast use of these tests. One problem in schools is the intense focus on improving the scores. Test scores often reflect test preparation tactics rather than true learning. Focusing too much attention on standardized test scores as a proxy for school quality overlooks other important data that parents and taxpayers should want to know, such as graduation rate, advanced placement offerings, and student motivation for learning. Secondly, when scores on standardized tests become the be all and end all of education, the content of these tests becomes the course content. But no set of tests can cover all the important elements of any content area. As a result, the curriculum of the school becomes “narrowed” in its basis. Over time, such narrowing of the curriculum in the earlier grades can lead to a deep lack of knowledge and understanding in subsequent grades.
These concerns represent just a starting point for what is wrong with an over-reliance on standardized tests, especially those used in high stakes ways. What are concerned parents, care givers and citizens to do? Here are some options to consider:
1. Exercise your right to refuse standardized testing. “Opting out” of the standardized tests is a legal right for those who meet the religious exception criteria. “Religious” does not require a formal religious affiliation. Interested parties should consider contacting UnitedOptOut.com for information.
2. Talk to your children about the limited value of these tests. Explore their feelings about the tests and remind them that they are a very limited measure of their academic potential.
3. Write to your school district superintendent or legislator about your concerns. Ask questions about how the scores on standardized tests are used in your local area. Inquire with local teachers about their perceptions of the effects of standardized tests on the teaching profession and their students.
4. Attend a school board meeting and inquire about the district practices surrounding the implementation of high stakes, standardized tests. Ask questions about how these tests indicate learning among the students.
Above all, remember that it is critical for our nation that we have students with standards rather than standardized students. As citizens, it is our utmost responsibility to ensure the highest quality education for young people. We encourage the public to be deeply critical of high stakes, standardized testing.
Sue Ellen Henry and Abe Feuerstein are associate professors of Education at Bucknell University. The opinions stated here are their own and not a reflection of the official stance of Bucknell University.