Achievement tests which are also often known as "standardized tests" are designed to measure the amount of general knowledge that a student has accrued in a particular subject area. While achievement tests are typically presented in a standardized format, containing multiple choice or short answer questions, some standardized tests like the SAT feature an essay portion.
There are various pros and cons to standardized tests, but educators in large generally believe that the positives outweigh the negatives in sufficient volume such that the standardized test remains a staple of the American school system.
Importance of an Achievement Test
There is vigorous debate in academic circles about the value and the importance of an achievement test. Schools utilize achievement tests to measure the progress and academic aptitude of their students, while city and state education departments use the results to inform their understanding of how well students are being taught, and whether their performances are up to state and city standards for students at their grade level.
Standardized tests are considered important because they serve as a sampling of where students are in their learning and whether or not they are "on track" to hit the achievement milestones that have been set for them. Standardized achievement tests, according to those who are proponents, are valuable and useful information.
They keep a fair record of student achievement and help to ensure that teachers and the school itself are accountable to the taxpaying public who are funding their salaries and equipment. To ensure that schools are running effectively and that students are being taught what it is agreed that they should know, standardized tests are a useful tool.
State and local officials can look at standardized as an unbiased look at student achievement. If all students from all districts take the same tests, state and local officials can measure their achievement by comparing their scores. This is a superior method, it is argued, to evaluating learning based on grades from teachers who have a personal interest in presenting good scores and favorable reflections on their teaching. Standardized tests are used to make sure that all students are learning the appropriate material for their grade level and class.
Merits of Achievement Tests
Achievement tests have their pros and cons. On the pro side, achievement tests allow for data to be collected about student achievement and learning that helps to inform educators, curriculum planners and the state officials who can help to determine the budget for a school.
Standardized testing also helps to pinpoint instructional leaders who are falling short of their duties and whose students are performing below standards. Very often, the data gained from standardized tests have helped to improve and ameliorate failing education systems, remove instructors who are no longer effective in the classroom, and reshape curriculums that may have been less than effective. In these ways, having a measure or metric of student achievement is important and useful, particularly when instructors are teaching a large volume of students every day, and have few opportunities to do large assessments.
Research has also shown that standardized testing has a high effect on student achievement. This could be because teachers begin to tailor their curriculum specifically so that students perform well on achievement tests as opposed to coming away from their learning with a real sense of the subject matter, but regardless, the test results do point to an understanding of the presented subject matter in a way that demonstrates effective classroom instruction.
Another argument in favor of standardized testing is that the tests are non-discriminatory because the content evaluated on the tests has been presented to all students. This ensures that all content given to all students is the same, and that there are not different tests given to disabled or minority children, which helps create educational equity in our schools.
Worldwide educational research has shown that students in nations, like China, who have long histories of standardized testing routinely perform better in reading, math and science than students from other nations.
Demerits of Achievement Tests
For as many positive merits of standardized achievement tests as there are, there are possibly more criticisms of the tests that critics have used for years to make the case to abolish the system entirely and find alternative means for evaluating student achievement.
There are arguments that the tests, in fact, do not help student achievement in any meaningful way, and the increases in positive scores that are seen on the test is merely a reflection of curriculum that is designed to help students score highly on these standardized tests specifically while allowing the more important but perhaps less quantifiable learning that should be taking place in the classroom fall by the wayside.
The argument is that the tests teach students to simply regurgitate knowledge for a high mark rather than internalize consider, apply and adapt what they have learned. The tests also come under fire for teaching students a lack of critical thinking skills and for being focused mode predominantly on rote memorization.
There is also academic evidence to suggest that only a certain kind of student fares well in the sort of educational atmosphere that leads to strong standardized tests scores, and that performance on standardized tests is not indicative of strong instructional leadership in the classroom nor an academically rigorous curriculum.
Many critics of standardized tests have pointed to the challenges that such tests pose for children with learning disabilities, special needs or emotional issues, whom the stress of the test or the structure of the questions may affect negatively.
These critics argue that the tests are discriminatory, setting up for failure the many students who have cognitive issues with the material, or simply struggle with multiple choice questions in a timed environment. This is also the case for students who are English language learners, and those who may find the structure of the questions and the language used in the test may be confusing or isolating.
One of the most compelling arguments for eliminating standardized or achievement tests is that these tests, ultimately, are only a small measure of what makes effective learning have meaning and use in a student's life. If the only reason to go to school is to memorize facts which will be of little use in the future, the tests are measuring that, but most educators agree that education is not simply about rote memorization of dates, names and historical facts.
Critical thinking, learning reading comprehension, writing skills, recognizing patterns and social skills are some of the most critical pieces of learning matter, and it is very difficult if not impossible to assess any of these with a standardized test or an achievement test. Arguments that teaching to the test is consistently forcing teachers to narrow their curriculum and ignore good classroom practices in favor of drills that force students to memorize and regurgitate useless information are also powerful demerits against achievement tests.
Types of Achievement Tests in the U.S.
While some tests like New York State's Regent exams, California's California Achievement Tests (CATs) and Iowa's Basic Skills Test (IBST) are regional, there are many standardized tests that operate on a national level. Tests like the ERBs measure elementary schoolers aptitude with certain skills and knowledge.
Anyone who has applied to college remembers the SATs, and some even took a PSAT during secondary school. Postgraduate admissions are often heavily reliant on standardized test results. Students hoping to attend medical school must take the MCATs. Students applying to law school take the LSAT. Students applying to business school must take the GMATs, and students in more traditionally liberal arts-related graduate programs will take the GRE.
The Purpose of an Achievement Test
There are several purposes to an achievement test, depending on the situation. In the case of a student applying to school, the purpose of an achievement test is to indicate to the admissions board that you have enough general prior knowledge in the topics and subjects areas that will be central to your study to be able to handle the work assigned at the graduate level.
For tests like the MCATs and the GMATs, the admissions committee will want to see a demonstration that you are prepared to handle the unique and specialized subject areas that will come up in a medical or business school. Not everyone who has graduated from college is prepared to move on to graduate study. The tests help to ensure that those admitted to graduate programs in a variety of disciplines are capable of completing the work and getting through the program with strong grades.
Another purpose of achievement tests, particular ones administered to students during their years in primary and secondary school, is to get a sense of whether or not the lessons they are learning in school are sticking with them.
Standardized tests help to indicate whether the materials that is being communicated to them has penetrated, and thereby gauge the effectiveness of their teachers, their curriculum, their classroom practices, their resources and their course material. Very often educators will use the results of standardized tests to make the decision that a certain subject is too challenging, too mature or on the contrary, far too easy for a student population.
They can also help assess which students in which subject areas are being most challenged, and use that to inform individual plans for students who may need extra assistance or to be taught in another way.
Uses of an Achievement Test
Aside from college admissions, curriculum assessment and teacher evaluation, achievement tests can be used to measure a student's knowledge of a particular subject area, and pinpoint the concepts he or she is missing. Achievement tests are not simply used in academic areas, however. People learning a new skill such as playing an instrument, playing a new sport, training for a marathon or working on a craft might find the uses of an achievement test helpful to check their skills and proficiency.
Athletes often time their runs, for instance, to see if they are getting faster or slower with their training. Weightlifters often measure the amount they have lifted and test their strength on various weights before they find the one most likely to help them strengthen and move on. A demonstration of skills in an ice skating class or a ballet class is also a kind of achievement test.
Achievement tests are used just as often for evaluation of an instructor as they are for the evaluation of a student. Many students get nervous when it is time to take a standardized test, but the fact of the matter is that the test is simply designed to see how effective the teacher is at doing his or her job. Students who are taking a skills test in a martial arts class, an equestrian qualification or in a tap dancing class are very likely being evaluated to see if they have the skills necessary to move to the next round.
Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites.