The Limits of Standardized Tests for Diagnosing and Assisting Student Learning
Standardized tests have historically been used as measures of how students compare with each other (norm-referenced) or how much of a particular curriculum they have learned (criterion-referenced). Increasingly, standardized tests are being used to make major decisions about students, such as grade promotion or high school graduation, and schools. More and more often, they also are intended to shape curriculum and instruction.
Proponents of the expanded uses and consequences of tests claim that newer exams are superior to the flawed exams of the past, measure what is important, and are worth teaching to. These arguments ignore the real-world limits to what standardized tests can usefully do. Repeating such false claims perpetuates test misuse and the dangerous belief that what is worth teaching is that which can be assessed by a standardized test.
Under a new federal law, state assessments of reading and math must be administered for accountability annually in grades 3-8 and once in high schools. The assessments must be based on state content and performance standards; measure higher order thinking; provide useful diagnostic information; and be valid and reliable. While the law does not mandate the use of standardized tests, many states will be inclined administer them to meet the federal law. An examination of each requirement, however, reveals the limits of standardized tests.
Tests are to be based on state standards
State standards are often too long and detailed to ever be taught. Many fail to distinguish what is important from what is unimportant or to separate what all students ought to learn in a subject from what only the most interested might learn. In part because of the level of detail, much of the content in state standards is not assessed by state tests.
Moreover, much of value in state standards cannot be tested with any paper-and-pencil test of a few hours duration. In a high quality education, students conduct science experiments, sole real-world math problems, write research papers, read novels and stories and analyze them, make oral presentations, evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of fields, and apply their learning to new and ill-defined situations. Standardized tests are poor tools for evaluating these important kinds of learning. If instruction focuses on the test, students will not learn these skills, which are needed for success in college and often in life.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
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