Can standardized tests be useful?

Standardized tests are not always popular with teachers. As a matter of fact, just one in four teachers nationwide see standardized tests as a very important measure of student achievement. Ama Nyamekye, a former New York City teacher, was one of those teachers who did not see much use in standardized tests when she first entered the classroom. As a matter of fact, before she even entered the classroom she railed against standardized tests with other educators who felt they were an attack on teachers, particularly those working in poor public schools.

However, in this week’s EdWeek (login required) she tells her story of how she now sees the value of standardized tests after getting some advice from her principal at her school in the South Bronx, which is one of America’s poorest communities. The principal asked her one simple question: “How do you know the kids are really getting it?” Ama couldn’t confidently answer the question. She thought she was a good teacher and her students performed well on the assignments and exams she prepared, but she needed more information to accurately answer the question.

To do so she turned to, you guessed it, standardized tests. Specifically, the New York State Comprehensive English Regents Exam. She administered it to her students, and what she found changed her view of the value of standardized tests. She states that:

“I discovered holes in my curriculum. I once dismissed standardized testing for its narrow focus on discrete set of skills, but I learned that my self-made assignments were more problematic. It turned out they were skewed in my favor.”

And that is why there is a need for standardized tests. The tests are not an attack on teachers or anyone else. They are to provide teachers, administrators, and parents information about how students are doing. Yes, how students perform on teacher designed assignments and exams provide information as well, but as in Ama’s case, they are not always the most accurate measure of what students are learning. Ama realized after reviewing her standardized test scores that she had designed her assignments and exams based around what she felt she effectively taught and not around what students needed to learn. This didn’t make Ama a bad teacher, it made her human. As humans, sometimes we need an external measure to give us some objective feedback on how well we are actually doing. That is why standardized tests are useful.

Unfortunately, far too many teachers and many others still do not realize Ama’s point. True, standardized tests are not perfect and can’t possibly evaluate all of what a student knows. But neither can any other measure. So the concern shouldn’t be about students taking standardized tests, but how best to use the data from those tests to improve student performance. – Jim Hull

For more information on standardized testing check out the Center’s Guide to Standardized Testing. And for information on how to use all types of education data more effectively, check out the Center’s Data-First.com.

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