Should Standardized Tests be Used to Assess the Progress of NCLB?
By Stephen Heyneman, Professor of International Education Policy
Throughout history, people have found only five ways to choose leaders: by inheritance, force, chance, political loyalty, or achievement. No modern democracy can afford to use any method other than the last. Standardized tests help to measure achievement.
First, we should understand what is meant by the word standardized. Here’s an example: If one potential leader is asked to swim across Old Hickory Lake on July 1st and another on January 1st, the test would not be standardized because the lake would be of different temperatures. We might all agree that such a test of leadership would be unfair. Standardized testing simply means that the circumstances in which tests are conducted are made as similar as possible so that our evaluation of a person’s achievement will not be unduly biased. Since there is no such thing as a test with zero bias, the question is whether the test is unduly biased.
Further, since there is no such thing as a test which is free of development cost, we must also ask whether we have developed a test which is not unduly biased within the budget allocated. No test developer, policy analyst, or academic should be taken seriously if they ignore the cost of test development in their recommendations.
There are some who argue that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is failing because of its use of standardized tests. They say that because stakes are high, teachers help students cheat. They say that tests emphasize only a few of the purposes of schooling. A few teachers do cheat. Bank tellers sometimes steal money. Does that justify banning the management of money by banks? And true, tests do emphasize math and science, but is that any reason not to also have tests which emphasize civics?
There are many problems with NCLB. And there are many problems with the tests used to evaluate NCLB. But the fact that the tests are standardized is not one of them. Many of the tests used to evaluate NCLB are poorly developed. The legislative authorizations for the tests are divorced from the realities of test development costs. Tests which assess the skills of evaluation and synthesis and the wide variety of subject matter in a state’s curriculum are much more expensive to design. Few legislatures know this.
Some of the NCLB tests are the equivalent of demanding that Lindberg fly across the Atlantic with only one wing. They are defective. But they are not defective because they are standardized; they are defective because they are of poor quality.
If someone were to want a non-standardized test to evaluate a nation’s youth, let me enter a child of theirs in a school system where such methods have been used. The People’s Republic of China during the time of the Cultural Revolution would be one choice. Sitting for an oral exam in contemporary Kazakhstan, where payment by results has a new meaning, might be another example. There are many instances of non-standardized tests around the world; each is riddled with bias. I doubt if any critic would want to enter one of their children in a school system where the tests are not standardized and where judgment is more unfair than they can possibly imagine.
Reprinted with the permission of Peabody College. © 2006, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.
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