Friday, December 24, 2010

Essay on Standardized Testing

Essay on Standardized Testing

Children are not learning, according to standardized testing scores. The government, parents, and teachers are at odds as to why this is. They all share a common goal: to give our children the best education possible, but there are many different ideas as to how this should be accomplished. Throughout all the many debates on this topic one militant voice rises above the crowd, in support of standardized testing, shouting oddly vague catch phrases such as “accountability,” “raising the bar,” and “tougher standards.” The problem with standardized testing, however, is that it misunderstands almost everything about education, including motivation, teaching, and evaluation.

The most blatant forms of motivation, namely bribes and threats, are ultimately more harmful than helpful. Some schools use diplomas as both a way of bribing and of threatening students to do well on standardized tests. Not only is this unfair, but it is destructive. When students are told that they will receive something in exchange for performing well enough, the real reason that they should want to do well, which is self-improvement, is sacrificed. Bribes and threats turn learning into a chore, rather than a fascinating journey, which results in students who do not want to go to school. Children do not enjoy learning because they are not being motivated to learn. They are being taught that the only reason that they should seek knowledge, or, even do anything, is to receive a reward or avoid a punishment. This idea may have the short-term desired effect. Children may remember facts long enough to pass a test. However, in the long run, it is more important that children are motivated to learn new things, rather than motivated merely for a reward or by a punishment.

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Students are not the only ones who are adversely affected by improper motivation. Educators are harmed as well. When schools and teachers are rated by their students’ test scores, the emphasis that was once placed learning and understanding, is forced to be placed on test preparation instead. Teachers have to choose between teaching well and teaching for the test. Some states have taken the opportunity to plac even more unwarranted pressure upon teachers by giving more money to the schools whose students score higher on the tests. Since students attending schools located in poor areas tend to score lower, distributing funds thi way is the equivalent of deliberately denying financial aid to those schools that most need it. Furthermore, since much of the student body in these schools consists of minorities, this unfair distribution policy is, essentially, discrimination. Since schools rely upon state grants to cover many of their expenses, when they receive less money, students suffer. Thus, educators who teach in poor areas are further pressured to provide a superficial education, covering only areas which are tested, so that the school will receive more funding. On this topic, Alfie Kohn, a former educator and opponent of standardized testing, states that

When high stakes are applied to educators,
those who teach low-scoring populations will
be most likely to be branded as failures. If
excellent teachers and principals decide to
leave the profession as a result of incessant
pressure to raise scores, we would expect
minority and low-income students to be
disproportionately affected by the departure of
these educators. (Poor Teaching)

The art of teaching is being destroyed by those who mistakenly believe that teaching children how to learn is not as important as forcing children to memorize data that is destined to be forgotten. These people do not understand that each child learns best when taught with a style, and at a pace, that she is comfortable with. When one considers how children learn, it becomes obvious that it is much more important that educators be allowed to teach in-depth about subjects that interest their pupils, rather than superficially covering large quantities of material. Unfortunately, good teachers are being forced to spend increasing amounts of time arming their students with obscure data for a test that is flawed at best and destructive at worst, because proponents of standardized testing seem to feel that a teacher’s primary purpose should be to program children’s minds as if they were computers. Alfie Kohn said that accountability “often turns out to be a code word for more control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms. This has an effect on learning similar to the effect that a noose has on breathing“ (A Look At).
Standardized testing, as the most abundant method of evaluation, is grossly flawed. A study that was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology stated that students who think “superficially,” that is, those who guess at or copy answers and skip harder parts, tend to score higher on standardized tests than those who ask questions and try to connect present lessons with previous ones. These tests are measuring and rewarding superficial thinking more than active thinking. Moreover, tests such as the CAT, MAT, and SAT were not designed to measure teaching or learning. They were designed in such a way that only one half of students would answer correctly, resulting in a wide range of scores. Kohn asserts that “The main objective of these tests is to rank, not to rate; to spread out the scores, not to gauge the quality of a given student or school” (Standardized Testing).

Further arguing the case against standardized testing, is the fact that these tests are biased. Research shows that white children who live in affluent areas tend to score the highest on the tests. This does not mean that these children are any more or less intelligent than others. Many experts believe that this is due largely to two reasons: the first reason being that English is usually the only language that they speak; therefore, they do not have a language barrier. The second reason is that their parents can afford to purchase additional test preparation books and materials for them. It is unfair to those who are less fortunate and those who learned English as a second language to use such a flawed instrument to assess them, much less to categorize them. Sadly, the testing system, is failing them. Crystal M. England, who has been an eighth grade teacher, a special education teacher, and a school principal, says:

The No Child Left Behind plan attempts to address
this issue. The reasons for the concern on behalf
of the federal government are astounding. This
policy states, “Research has shown that English
language learners, when compared to their English-
fluent peers, tend to receive lower grades and
often score below the average on standardized
math and reading assessments.” First of all, it
is incredible that this finding comes as a surprise to anyone. If we sent American
students to Mexico and gave them a standardized
test in Spanish, would they not be at a
significant disadvantage? Secondly, it is
implausible to think that increased, higher-
stakes testing can improve this condition. (None
of Our Business, page 90)

“An American educator who was examining the British educational system once asked a headmaster why so little standardized testing took place in British schools. ‘My dear fellow,’ came the reply, ‘In Britain we are of the belief that, when a child is hungry, he should be fed, not weighed.’” (Alternatives). Children in America are subjected to testing more than students in any other country in the world, yet their students are learning more than ours. Statistics show that students from other countries consistently demonstrate a broader range of knowledge and a greater depth of understanding. This is due, at least in part, to what other countries are not doing that we are. Teachers in other countries are not required to force-feed their students lists of facts, then test them yearly to see what they have retained. Most of these countries rarely use standardized tests before high school and even more rarely use multiple-choice tests for children of any age. Does it not make sense that we should adopt a teaching strategy similar to that of the rest of the world, rather than do the exact opposite?

Standardized testing has been utilized in the USA for so long, it seems forgotten that it is not necessary and that there are much better alternatives. Opponents of standardized testing have researched other methods of evaluation, which are much more accurate. One method of assessment that has been discussed is called the “performance assessment,” which compares each student’s work over a period of time and the procedures by which they created said work, evaluating whether satisfactory improvement has been made.

“Portfolio assessment” is much like performance assessment, in that it looks at student work created over time, but it includes much more. In addition to improvement in students’ works and learning processes, portfolio assessment also evaluates other areas, such as the students’ interest in reading and writing and their ability to evaluate themselves. Examples of items that may be included in these portfolios are tape-recorded samples of a student reading and describing, in her own words, what a story was about, teacher’s notes on the child’s progress, and printed or recorded interviews with the child. Generally speaking, anything that shows what the student has been learning would be perfectly appropriate for her portfolio. In Creating Support for Effective Literacy Education, it is stated that “At a minimum, it includes samples of students’ work, recorded observations of their learning processes, and students’ evaluation of their own processes and products, along with teacher evaluation.” This type of evaluation can be scored numerically for grading, but the most important aspect of this assessment is that it actually helps to improve learning and teaching by showing specifically what is and what is not being learned and by providing clues as to why.

As evident, a better method of evaluation must be utilized. Chillingly, throughout all the arguments about statistics and scores, children are hardly mentioned; quite often, it seems that the children have been forgotten. This is due, at least in part, to such impersonal testing. It would be much harder to forget about the children who are being evaluated in a performance-based test, because it is much more personal and much less statistical. When all is said and done, the fact remains that students who do not enjoy learning will not retain the facts that are forced upon them, effectively reducing their knowledge. The best way to teach children is to make learning fun. We need teachers who have the courage to show students that intelligence is more than just memorizing state mandated facts and dates, because when classrooms are turned solely into test preparation boot camps, children lose what is most important in education. Furthermore, there is something inherently frightening to the idea that children only need to be taught, and only need to know, the data and skills that the manufacturers of one over-emphasized test deem important.

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