Standardised tests can work

One of the most baffling currents in the education debate is the one about testing. We know that frequent testing is the best way of ensuring that students retain what they have learnt and yet prominent educationalists advise against it. Testing may cause anxiety, this is true. But it’s most likely to cause anxiety for those students who cannot answer the questions. Perhaps we should level-up and ensure that more students can succeed by teaching them better. This seems preferable to dumbing-down and removing a powerful learning tool.

Standardised testing takes things a stage further. To detractors, tests set at arms-length by state authorities are ‘neoliberal’ – a wholly surprising way to characterise a ‘big government’ initiative.

However, fans of standardised tests would point to the fact that they are less affected by biases. The horror of ‘teaching to the test’ is facilitated by knowing exactly what is on the test. Standardisation offers the chance of giving tests to kids that their teachers haven’t seen. The fact that they are standardised also means that you can compare the performance of students in your own school with students elsewhere. You may think you’re doing an excellent job but if everyone in the state can add fractions and your students can’t then it might be time to review how this is being taught.

Of course, you need to have a strategy. I think the best criticism of standardised tests is that, alone, they don’t offer any solutions. Teachers also need to know how to improve. Current educational trends might convince some teachers to adopt inquiry learning as their improvement strategy and yet this is unlikely to work.

Yet if you set your face against standardised tests then you are really suggesting that you should not be accountable. The most common argument is that standardised tests don’t measure everything; a non-sequitur that was trotted-out this week to discredit the new Australian tests for prospective teachers. So what if they don’t measure everything? The stuff that they do measure is important and it’s worth knowing whether students have learnt it or not.

It’s a bit like a football coach arguing that she should not be judged on the results of games or a car salesman suggesting he should not be held accountable for his sales figures. “It’s too reductive,” they might argue. “This work involves people and people are incredibly complex. There’s so much to this job that is simply not captured in bald results.”

In this context, it is interesting to note a new research article published by EducationNext (and brought to my attention on Twitter by @JohnYoung18 who is worth a follow). It may be true that testing is good for highlighting differences in instruction, such as who is better at teaching fractions, but this might not matter all that much for students’ later fortunes. The authors therefore set out to discover whether the future life chances of students were affected by being exposed to a standardised testing regime. The design is quite clever and I am going to quote two paragraphs that I think have wide-reaching implications for education:

“Our analysis reveals that pressure on schools to avoid a low performance rating led low-scoring students to score significantly higher on a high-stakes math exam in 10th grade. These students were also more likely to accumulate significantly more math credits and to graduate from high school on time. Later in life, they were more likely to attend and graduate from a four-year college, and they had higher earnings at age 25.

Those positive outcomes are not observed, however, among students in schools facing a different kind of accountability pressure. Higher-performing schools facing pressure to achieve favorable recognition appear to have responded primarily by finding ways to exempt their low-scoring students from counting toward the school’s results. Years later, these students were less likely to have completed college and they earned less.”

Texas have now closed the loophole that allowed higher-performing schools to exempt low scoring students by classifying them as eligible for special education.

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8 Comments on “Standardised tests can work”

  1. David says:

    Hi Greg, Are you familiar with this article by Laura Hamilton in the American Educator from 2010-2011? http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Hamilton.pdf There’s a sub-item in it from ED Hirsch and Robert Pindiscio that’s interesting as well.

  2. Much, if not most, of what is in the Hamilton article is wrong. RP

  3. Karen W says:

    The response to “they don’t measure everything” here is an effort to adopt standardized assessments that purport to measure more–or, at least, different–things, like critical thinking. The resulting tests are much more expensive and take much more time to administer.

  4. Bart says:

    Hi Greg
    I think it is perfectly accurate to describe testing regimes as ‘neo-liberal’, it’s long been a neo-liberal government tradition to say “here is the target and reaching it is nothing to do with us – it’s someone else’s fault when don’t reach it”.
    That said, I broadly agree with your article. I’ve often felt the problem with NAPLAN was never the testing, it was MySchool because that made it high-stakes. Not high-stakes for students by the way, they can generally do whatever they like in the tests, it only made the test high-stakes for schools and teachers.
    I think it is interesting the progress WA has made since making NAPLAN 9 success (top 2 bands) a graduation requirement for the WACE.

  5. Chester Draws says:

    How can something over a hundred years’ old be “neo-liberal”? Where is the “neo” in doing things the oldest possible way?

    • Bart says:

      It’s neo as it is not classical liberalism. Classical liberalism would more than likely have a laissez faire attitude towards schooling and traditional socialism would more than likely have responsibility lying with the state to improve schools. The neo-liberal way is to pretend there is both – targets for improvement while expecting schools to get their own way there. At the same time as reducing funding, responsibility of government, and the advantages and equity of systemic approaches.


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