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by John Gabelus

“Pencils down,” says the test proctor.  In the mind of each student runs regret about second guessed answers, an idea for a more complete essay topic, and the hope that they did not disappoint anyone.  These exams carry the futures of students and teachers alike, not to mention the reputation of one’s family and school.  It seems that endless preparation from each involved party will never be enough to alleviate the stress that comes with taking an exam.  Whether they are standardized tests designed for elementary and middle school students, high school placement tests, or the SATs needed for college acceptance, they are exams that create unnecessary and negative stressors for students throughout the United States.  Standardized testing’s unreliable nature and the adverse psychological effects placed on students outweigh any of the possible benefits. Ultimately, this form of examination should be replaced by a more complete and less taxing evaluation.

Before we can call for a reform of this particular test, we must first consider the concept of “test” itself.  Admittedly, tests have always existed—and tests are not even limited to humans. Examinations within animal communities, for reasons including but not limited to mating, territory, and pride, are plagued with bias and occur on rather uneven playing fields. These tests measure dominance rather than growth. Thankfully, primal competitions in order to display and secure advancement have long been abandoned in the United States—at least, academically speaking.

However, in human society the need for evaluation remains, and with this need comes a second factor: that of a fair assessment.  The word “standardized” is used to describe the consistent questions, conditions, and scoring of each exam.  The exams themselves are used as a baseline to which student answers can be compared. We have accurately defined the exam, however, the basis for its use must still be given. The most precise and inclusive reason comes from Thomas Oakland, President of the International Foundation for Children’s Education, who notes, “tests are used to measure innumerable aspects of one’s … development and health”(Oakland qtd. in Phelps).  Testing today is meant to track, promote, and affect good education patterns in America.

Yet even in the attempt to standardize this form of examination not all tests are alike.  There are different levels of examination and also variation in terms of the stakes involved with each exam.  The differences truly lie within the details of age and grade level involvement.  “Low-stakes” exams included state administered tests that are used in the accumulation of data and the division of funding for each specific school. “High-risk” exams include high school and college entrance exams such as the SAT where a failure may result in “denied admission to one’s preferred university” (Oakland qtd. in Phelps). In both testing scenarios students are told and expected to perform at their maximum potentials—an idea that is intimidating especially for students who have not yet entered adulthood.

Even though the consequences of test taking do not seem apparent when looking at an elementary school student; the exams are changing their learning styles.  In the article, “Standardized Testing and Its Victims,” Alfie Kohn states, “few countries use standardized tests for children below high school age—or multiple-choice tests for students of any age”.  The reason for this is because early learning is the most crucial period of time for young minds to experiment with creativity, initiative, and critical thinking.  The format of these exams, multiple-choice, restricts these important and valuable characteristics that must be developed in the minds of young people.  Unlike an explanation that can introduce varied points, multiple-choice exams offer little to no leeway for students to truly investigate and experiment with ideas.

High school and college age students are also suffering from the consequences of standardized testing.  The pressure placed on students applying to institutions of higher education is enormous in today’s society.  As a recent high school graduate, I too had to undergo the college application process and take the SATs.  The SAT Reasoning Test is an exam that takes at least four hours to complete (when including break times).  As a young adult sitting in place for such a period of time, with only two ten-minute breaks to recuperate from the increasingly difficult questions, I definitely doubted the quality of my answers toward the end of the exam.  Too often would I find myself bubbling multiple-choice answers just so that I could rest my head before beginning a section that contained questions that were derived from another subject.

There are many other factors that can affect a student’s performance come exam day.  Fatigue was one factor that I was forced to deal with, but in actuality “an individual’s score may vary significantly from day to day due to testing conditions or the test-taker’s mental or emotional state” (Fairtest.org).  We must analyze another dimension of the standardized test that is not as consistent as the questions that are asked.  Although standardized exams are considered to be the constant in an equation wherein the student is the variable, test makers fail to take outside conditions on student performance into account.  A student grieving the loss of a parent may have more on their mind than just the exam at hand.  Should they be punished for their inability to balance emotion and concentration with a letter of denial from the school that required them to complete the exam in the first place?  The reliability of exams is debatable, “A test is completely reliable if you would get exactly the same results the second time you administered it” (Fairtest.org).  Variables including the testing environment and the demeanor of the proctor could also influence the success of an exam.  Alas, there is too much left to chance for a single exam to be the defining factor regarding a student’s educational progression.

Some of the uncertainty comes from the part of the test-taker, but test-makers are also responsible.  Exam questions in subjects such as math and science are based on unchanging theories and definitions, but a major portion of most standardized tests, regardless of grade level, is English.  Richard Phelps, a graduate of two Ivy League institutions, who has also authored and edited many books defending the use of standardized testing, wrote, “Just how culturally biased can mathematics be… yes, reading comprehension and grammar could be if one does not insist that the test be based on Standard English but, if it is based on Standard English, how culturally biased can it be” (Phelps 75).   This statement contains a section of validity in terms of the undeniable fact that math and science are subjects that are not open to any one person’s bias.  The laws that govern math, science, and grammar are set in stone.  However, Phelps’s statement regarding the idea that reading comprehension is not culturally biased simply because it is based on “Standard English” is incorrect.  Multiple-choice questions that are phrased subjectively, such as “From this passage we can discern that”, do exist and their “correct” interpretation is dictated by the test-maker that wrote the question.  The fact that misinterpretation may come from cultural diversity also validates the point that standardized tests do not account for a wide enough range of factors.

Despite these facts and possibilities, there are many who continue to defend standardized testing’s ability to motivate and measure students.  From a purely objective point of view, arguments for this point are easy to find.  For example, Herbert Walberg, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago argues, “students also benefit from frequent testing since it encourages them to be prepared for class and to find out what they have not learned” (Walberg qtd. in Phelps).  Much of learning is in fact self-evaluation.  When a student realizes their own mistakes, they are more likely to understand a concept with the hope of carrying this knowledge into future educational situations.  However, Walberg’s comment speaks to an ignorance that stems from the idea that students cannot be self-motivated. If the true value of exams was the ability to encourage students, then why are tests graded?  Exams do not encourage students to be prepared, but rather forces them to memorize facts and superficial information needed to pass an exam.  This practice is detrimental both in the classroom and in the psyche.

There is an obvious gap in the conversation on the relevance of standardized tests.  Most, if not all, parties who have expressed educated opinions in support of standardized tests are made up of individuals who no longer have to endure today’s exams.  I am not seeking to discredit the accomplishments or knowledge of previous generations, but their experiences with standardized tests come from a time where there was very little importance placed on the evolution of critical thinking.  Well-known commentators in this discussion including Richard P. Phelps, Thomas Oakland, and Herbert Walberg all completed their university studies before the 1990s, over two decades ago, meaning that they had taken their final standardized tests years before.  The criteria that quantifies success has become much more difficult to satisfy over the years and with a much higher need for critical thinkers, as opposed to skilled workers, today’s students are charged with the immense task of acquiring both qualitative and quantitative success.

The effects of testing are not only visible physically.  Standardized test grading can create an unfair or unreachable standard for students.  An aspect of the discussion on standardized testing that is too often overlooked is the psychological burden testing can create.  Imagine an elementary student, named Timothy, who claims an above-average academic career, but is not the top student of his class. Timothy, along with his classmates, takes a state required exam each year, but he always fails to perform well come exam day.  The constant failure on this exam contrasted with his exemplary performance in the classroom causes young Timothy to question and doubt his own intelligence.  Which source of evaluation is more complete: his teacher’s tests, homework assignments, and observations or an exam that occupies only one week of his school year?

Although there are so many flaws in the test-taking system, there is still a need to quantify knowledge. President George W. Bush, when asked about the use of standardized tests, commented, “You don’t know unless you measure”. With this nugget of opinion also comes a valid point. How do we reform the system of large-scale examinations without sacrificing the academic assessments that are necessary? How else are educators, universities, and employers supposed to assess whether or not a candidate is capable of accomplishing a set of tasks?  Test reformation must be more inclusive and sensitive as to account for variables, but need only change the aspects of the exams that can be subject to bias.  A multi-step examination would best encompass the qualities, creativity, critical thinking, and imagination, which parents, teachers, and students agree are crucial in education.  According to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “Good teacher observation, documentation of student work, and performance-based assessment” (Fairtest.org) will also play a valuable role in the appraisal of student learning capacity and intellect. This system of evaluation will better gauge student progression and ingenuity without creating a fissure in which psychological doubt or uncertainty can manifest itself.

Progress must be measured, but there is a more positive and efficient way to go about the measurement process.  Associate director of the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, Marguerite Clarke comments, “Tests can be a valuable part of a student’s education, but when they become the driving force behind educational reform they can become corrupted” (Clarke qtd. in Sadowski).  It seems modern culture is too caught up in test scores when we should be concentrating on developing students and citizens who can contribute academically to a global community.  Learning is the main goal. Exams, as they are, have created a lack of general interest that students need to seek more knowledge.  Students in today’s culture view standardized testing as a chore and study methodically.  The examination process has reduced intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of learning. There is a better evaluation process that will come about, but the first step lies in the willingness of traditionalists to rebuild our accepted, yet far too imperfect estimation system.

 

 Works Cited

Correcting Fallacies about Educational and Psychological Testing. Ed. Richard P. Phelps. Washington, DC; Washington, D.C.:, 2009. Print.

FairTest. “What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests?” The National Center for Fair &

Open Testing. N.p., 22 May 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

John, Alfie. “Standardized Testing and Its Victims.” Standardized Testing and Its Victims. N.p., 27 Sept. 2000. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.

Phelps, Richard P. Kill the Messenger : The War on Standardized Testing. New Brunswick, N.J.: New Brunswick, N.J. : Transaction Publishers, 2003. Print.

Sadowski, Michael. Spotlight on high-stakes testing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

Educational Pub Group, 2003. Print.