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Are standardised tests helpful or damaging to children's education?

Standardised testing has ignited a national debate in the last few years (or decades), and many parents feel understandably concerned about their children being judged based on tests that, in some cases, don’t seem to reliably correlate with actual learning or with successful college and career outcomes. In the United States, both public and private schools use standardised assessments each school year. In public schools, students must undergo many tests to ensure they meet state or federal standards. Private schools have more leeway, although, at “Whitby”, we do require our students from Grade 2 and on to complete the Comprehensive Testing Program from the Educational Records Bureau and the International Schools Assessment from the Australian Council for Educational Research.

At Whitby, I believe that standardised testing can benefit students—as long as it’s looked at in the right light. Below, I’ll discuss some of the benefits of standardised assessments and some of the ways standardised assessments can be negative for students.

The Pros and Cons of Standardised Testing

Pro # 1. Standardised testing is a metric for learning

When Whitby students are assessed through standardised testing, we gain a valuable metric to check the quality of our curriculum. With exams created and given by an independent organisation, standardised test scores are helpful because they come from a neutral source and provide us with data that we can compare to other independent schools across the United States and other international schools across the globe.

Pro # 2. Standardised testing helps pinpoint areas for improvement

When we receive standardised test data at Whitby, we use it to evaluate the effectiveness of our education program. We view standardised testing data as another set of data points to assess student performance and as a means to help us reflect on our curriculum. When we look at Whitby’s assessment data, we can compare our students to their peers at other schools to determine what we’re doing well within our educational continuum and where we need to invest more time and resources.

Pro # 3. Standardised tests can help schools evaluate progress

Assessment data is also helpful for year-over-year internal comparisons. We compare data over a number of years to find trends—and then trace any changes back to their source. If the maths scores of our fourth grade students suddenly jump, we want to identify what change led to the improved performance, and how we can continue to implement this within our curriculum. We’re also able to use a student’s historical assessment data to monitor their progress and uncover any challenges they may need to overcome (as well as identifying places where they have already improved and excelled.)

Now let’s take a look at what we view as the most concerning aspects of standardised assessment:

Con #1. Test scores can impact confidence

A big disadvantage of standardised testing is that it’s easy to interpret a student’s score as the sole judgement of that student’s ability. We’re constantly emphasising at Whitby that the number is only one point of data within an array of internal assessments across many subject areas that provide us with information on a student’s learning progress. There are many cases where students have demonstrated clear understanding within a subject or concept through various assessments, but aren’t as skilled at taking multiple choice tests. Nevertheless, it can be hard on a student if they feel that they didn’t perform as well as they’d like. In worst case scenarios, instead of determining the entire picture of learning through a review of all assessment data with their teachers, a student might determine their success based on a standardised test score that is taken once a year.

Con #2. There’s pressure to “teach to the test”

When standardised exams become all important in a school or district, it has a massive impact on teaching and learning. Educators frequently start “teaching to the test” if they feel that their evaluations (and jobs) solely depend on how well students perform. Educators may also stop trying new techniques and teaching methods in the classroom. With every minute counting on the way to their students’ next exam, teachers will worry that an untested method will backfire and their students will score worse than before. This comes at the cost of inquiry, engagement, creativity and risk taking in student learning.

Con #3. Scores don’t provide a true picture of a student’s ability

Far too many people wrongly assume that standardised testing data provides a neutral authoritative assessment of a child’s intellectual ability. Cultural factors, unfamiliarity with testing methods, test anxiety, and illness can wreak havoc with how well a student performs. For that reason, it’s important to dig deeper when looking at a student’s test scores. Does a low score indicate a lack of knowledge about the subject or a problem with taking the standardised test? For example, an excellent writer could struggle with picking out the right answer in a multiple choice grammar and punctuation test. Yet that same student could excel at composing well-thought out, logical essays about the literature they read and enjoyed in class.

It’s also easy to assume that students who score high in maths are good at processing information and reasoning abstractly, but that’s not always the case. In fact, researchers have found that high standardised scores have little correlation with memory, attention and processing speed. High test scores could simply mean a student excels at rote memorization and multiple choice test taking.

Final Assessment

Standardised testing is truthfully a very difficult issue, because we do need internal and external assessments to measure student success. Assessments are useful when they’re used as data to help schools improve the quality of the teaching and learning. They become harmful, however, when tests are used to judge students’ natural abilities and when educators are put under pressure to “teach to the test.” Schools and parents should always look at standardised tests not as a value judgement on the student, but as an additional data point that can provide some perspective on student learning.


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