The hazards of standardized tests

Last week, we talked about the results of several national and international standardized tests. While standardized tests are good for comparing large groups to each other, they are terrible mechanisms for measuring an individual student’s understanding.

One problem is standardized tests penalize kids who aren’t good test takers.

Some people scoff at the idea of being a “bad tester,” but some kids are just really bad at taking tests. Maybe they get so stressed out that they shut down, or they have trouble focusing, or they have learning disabilities, or they work slower than some of their peers and can’t finish before the time limit is up. As a result, they don’t score well.

This doesn’t mean they don’t understand how to do math or read. Think of that scene from “The Blindside” (notwithstanding any creative license and real-world drama):  Instead of making Michael sit at the table in a silent room with the test in front of him, his teacher takes him to the hallway, reads the questions aloud and lets him answer orally — and he performs much better this way.

Another — and arguably far worse — problem is standardized tests demand there only be one correct answer.

In math, this is problematic because a student could know the formula or steps to solve an equation, but if they forget to carry a 1 or transpose two numbers and arrive at the wrong answer, the test penalizes them. By the same token, a student could pick an answer at random and still have a 25% chance at being right. Guessing the right answer is not the same as knowing how to solve the problem, but a student who guesses has a greater chance of being “right” than one who made a mistake in their calculations.

Yes, arriving at the correct answer is important in the real world. However, if someone understands the steps to solve the problem, then it won’t matter what numbers or variables you put in front of them, they should still be able to figure it out.

In reading, this teaches kids that there is only one right answer and forces them to try to read the test-maker’s mind. Some questions are straightforward comprehension, like identifying a type of sentence or correctly spelling a word. But many of the reading questions on standardized tests are more focused on interpretation: What does the author mean by X? What does Y symbolize? Why did John do this? Why did Jane say that?

There is always more than one possible interpretation of anything. Some interpretations can be more “right” than others, because any conclusion should be supported by the text. However, by insisting there is only one right answer, standardized tests teach kids that whatever an “authority” says is “correct” must be the only “correct” answer. This is how we get generations of kids who think everything they see or hear on the internet is gospel.

When our schools are judged solely on standardized test results and teachers are forced to teach to the test, we fail our children.

Instead, we should emphasize the process of reaching an answer over having the “right” answer, especially when it comes to reading. We should teach them how to analyze language use, consider sources’ veracity and potential bias and differentiate verifiable facts from opinion. And we should teach them to articulate how they came to a specific conclusion.

When kids learn to analyze and think for themselves, they are less easily manipulated — and the modern world around them is rife with manipulation. Everywhere our young people turn, there is a brand or influencer or politician or corporation trying to sell them something, whether that be a physical product, an ideal or an ideology. And if we don’t teach them to think critically — to parse through the information bombarding them to reach their own conclusion — then we leave them open to being manipulated by those who seek to profit from their ignorance.