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Problems With Standardized Testing (page 3)

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Updated on Nov 4, 2013

High stakes have led to cheating and score manipulation.

The largest cheating scandal in recent history was discovered in Atlanta during the 2012-2013 school year. Over the past decade, students in Atlanta had shown more highly improved test scores than in any other district. But evidence of a wide cheating conspiracy invalidated those scores and left administrators with little idea about how effective instruction had been over those ten years. In 2013, education research organization FairTest published a list of confirmed cases of state test score manipulation in at least 37 states and Washington, D.C.

Critics of standardized tests say that in addition to being tempted to cheat, school administrators may also be tempted to push low-performing students into special education, so their performance won't impact schools’ and districts’ cumulative scores. FairTest found that high-stakes testing may push administrators to arrange for low-scoring students to be absent on test day or leave the school completely.

Tests include cultural bias.

Studies published by The Harvard Education Review and RethinkingSchools.org have highlighted the problem of cultural bias in standardized tests. The main argument fueling the debate is that standardized tests ask students to draw on knowledge that they are unlikely to obtain in school.

W. James Popham, an expert on educational assessment, says that students draw from three sources when taking standardized tests: their natural intellectual ability, what they learn in school, and what they learn outside of school. For the test to be fair, Popham asserts, the first two should be the only factors that contribute to a student's score. “If children come from advantaged families and stimulus-rich environments, then they are more apt to succeed on items in standardized achievement test items than will other children whose environments don't mesh as well with what the tests measure,” he writes. Critics contend that outside knowledge consistently comes into play, making standardized tests unfair.

Poor timing keeps teachers from utilizing test results.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and other critics of standardized tests, say that their results don't help address student needs. “Results come back months later, usually after the end of the school year, when their instructional usefulness has expired,” Duncan said. Fourth grade students, for example, are tested on their knowledge at the end of fourth grade, and by the time schools receive the data, those students are already in fifth grade, preparing for fifth grade exams. This does not allow teachers to adjust their teaching style or make adjustments for individual students.

Test anxiety impedes learning.

Standardized tests place a heavy weight on students that can lead to anxiety. Test anxiety became such a serious issue that in 2002, California state tests included instructions for teachers on what to do if a student vomits on the test.

For students who have to pass a standardized test in order to advance to the next grade or to obtain a diploma, test anxiety can soar. Because anxiety can be so paralyzing, students may forget facts they had memorized or how to perform simple mathematical operations. In this way, the pressure placed on students to perform well ends up impeding the very thing standardized tests are designed to assess: how much students know.

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