Is Standardized Testing Failing Our Kids?

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Updated on May 14, 2014

For many families, awaiting the results of a child's yearly test has become just another rite of passage. But the practice of “standardized testing,” whether it's to judge a child's eligibility to advance a grade, or their caliber as a college applicant, is anything but standard issue. It's been hailed by some as the answer to school performance woes, and condemned by others as the very cause of them. The debate masks a larger question: just how do we define what it means to learn something, and how can we test for it?

To many, the notion of standardized testing is appealing: it measures students by a common yardstick, holds teachers accountable for results, and helps identify where problems lie. But the temptation to sort the smart from the not-so-smart has had social and cultural repercussions from the get-go. “The modern testing movement came out of the effort at the turn of the last ascertain society's 'mental defectives' and sort them from those of superior intelligence who would occupy society's elite strata,” says Peter Sacks, author of Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change it and, most recently, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. In other words, because standardized tests are designed by those in a position of power, they can be culturally biased in favor of the “haves” and against the “have-nots.” For example, one of the earliest I.Q. tests administered to World War I recruits showed a tennis court with no net, and asked test-takers to identify what was missing from the picture. Because few people outside of the economic elite has ever seen such a thing before, their chances of answering the question correctly were slim.

Most people these days know what a tennis court looks like, and today's standardized test-makers take pains to prevent cultural bias in their test questions, but other issues remain. Because the current system rewards high-performing schools, and sanctions low-performing ones, many critics of standardized testing say that tests hurt the students who need help the most, and reward those who are already at an advantage. “The testing movement in schools is exacerbating the class and race divide in the education system,” says Sacks.

Increasing pressure on teachers to produce high test scores has also raised concerns. Critics say testing leads to a narrowing class curriculum, since teachers may “teach to the test” instead of exploring topics and approaches to teaching that may not produce results on paper. The flip side of the argument? Wayne Camara, Vice President of Research at The College Board, says the quality of schools affects testing, too. “Success on tests in school is highly related to the quality of education that kids get,” says Camara. It's no wonder that this chicken-and-egg conundrum has parents, and policymakers, confused as to what to do.

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