What is "teaching to the test"? Standardized tests as a form of academic measurement have become a huge part of the school year. Kids and parents are often frustrated with standardized tests that take up valuable teaching time and seem to only have one endpoint: long assessments that are not always an accurate measurement of student skills or teaching methods. Standardized testing has become a hot-button issue among teachers, parents, and students alike. While standardized tests proponents argue that standardized tests hold teachers and school districts accountable, many argue that they also place undue stress on teachers and students and encourage teachers to teach only tested standards.
The Purpose of Standardized Testing
According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a standardized test is "any examination that's administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner." The test either measures aptitude which is how well students are likely to perform in a given setting or achievement which measures how well students know a learned subject. As a result, standardized testing allows educators to make valid inferences about the knowledge and skills a student possesses or has the ability to posses.
Impact on Students
A Council of the Great City Schools study states that the average students takes approximately 112 standardized tests by the time they graduate high school with standardized testing 2.3 percent of classroom time for an average eighth grade student. Critics of standardized tests argue that the test places unneeded stress on students to perform well, especially when tests are delivered in excess. For example, stress from standardized tests can lead to poorer health and negative feelings toward school and learning. Students begin to question their abilities and self-esteem when they see others as controlling the administration and consequences of the tests they are mandated to take. Some families and students choose to opt-out or simply not take these required standardized tests but that can result in grade penalties and may be strongly discouraged by administration.
On the other hand, proponents of standardized tests argue that the negative impact is minimal when compared to the outcome. While research on the positive outcomes of standardized testing on students is limited, mandated testing provides students an objective measure of their knowledge of a given subject. In addition, standardized tests indirectly impact students by letting teachers know what type of instruction they need or what type of knowledge they are lacking.
Impact on Teachers
The effects of standardized testing go far beyond the student. For instance, a survey of 1,500 National Education Association (NEA) teacher members found that nearly three out of four (72 percent) teachers felt moderate to extreme pressure from their school and administrators to improve their standardized test scores. What's more, slightly more than four out of ten (42 percent) teachers believed that the emphasis placed on improving test scores negatively impacted their classroom (versus 15 percent who believed they had a positive impact). Altogether, 45 percent of the NEA members surveyed had considered leaving the profession due to the adverse effects of standardized testing. The effects of tying student performance in standardized testing to salaries and job stability has led many teachers to experience a lack of control over their work lives. Since this lack of stability and control is a major stress factor among teachers, the NEA notes that it's not surprising that many experience high stress levels.
Advocates of standardized testing argue that since standardized tests hold districts, schools, and teachers accountable, only those who fail to perform will sit in the hot seat. In addition, since standardized tests are objective in nature, they are a useful tool to gauge performance. Teachers, on the other hand, are subjective in nature and can unfairly assign grades.
Standardized tests can place significant physical and emotional stress on students and teachers. These tests can hold teachers and school districts accountable in academic performance. However, linking student performance on the tests to teacher salary and job stability can have drastic and negative effects on the overall health and well-being of teachers and their students.
Tim Zimmer is an Associate Consultant at Manhattan Strategy Group (MSG), a management and social services consulting firm that works with Federal, State, and local government agencies.