Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Standardized Testing

Picture Source

In the US, annual, high-stakes exams are given and their results affect reforms in schools, student grade level progress, and even teachers’ careers. They are used as a means of holding both educators and school districts accountable. Common standards help to make sure that schools across the country are performing consistently. But in the last ten years, No Child Left Behind has created within the education system a culture of teaching for tests.

Students in this country are generally subjected to at least a few weeks of test taking, sometimes over a month. Despite the extreme emphasis on test-taking, American students rank relatively low compared to other developed nations in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). By all accounts, the small time window and time necessary takes away teaching time and often occur before students have a chance to learn all of the material.

The question is whether or not standardized tests are a valid way of assessing a student. Some students are simply poor test takers, but in other settings can prove that they have in fact mastered the concepts in question. Even the most competent student can be denied a high school diploma because of a low test score. Which, to me, seems absolutely ridiculous! If a student’s graduation depends on their demonstrating competency, then there ought to be multiple options for their assessment.

Psychology also comes into play when it comes to test-taking. Studies show that students, when reminded of their race before a test, will perform lower in areas which their race stereotypically performs worse in. Likewise, girls when reminded of their gender before math and science exams, generally perform worse than their actual level of competence in the subjects. I, for one, always began standardized exams angry, because there was never an option for me to reflect my mixed race heritage in the biographical sections.

My experience with standardized testing has been admittedly not as bad as most students. I took IOWA exams throughout elementary school, ERBs in middle school, the PSAT on multiple occasions, APs, and finally the SAT1 and a few SAT2 exams. My scores have always reflected my competency, except when it came to math. Being ever unsure of my mathematical capabilities, I tended to second guess my answers, and as a result I would often erase the right answer in favor of another. This doubt was unfounded, I always performed well in math in school, but I believed that girls were worse at math than boys and that I thus had no chance of performing well. Admittedly, most of my anxiety came from having to fill in those silly bubbles and wanting them to be perfect. After all, they spent an awful lot of time making sure we knew that marking outside of the lines could mean our tests would be scored incorrectly. It was like high-stakes coloring in the lines.

To conclude, I think that this country needs to adopt a new attitude when it comes to assessing students and schools. High-stakes testing is just asking for things to go wrong. Students, in my opinion, need to focus on learning material and learning to think critically, not on panicking over filling in several hundred bubbles. At the least, reforms need to be considered in providing better assessments for those students who are simply poor test takers. If the goal is that every student receives an equal opportunity to prove themselves, than this goal needs to be sought more fervently.