Sometime between March 7 and 18, nearly every third- through eighth-grade child in Illinois will take a standardized test. In grades 3, 5 and 8, students will be tested in reading and math; fourth- and seventh-graders will be tested in science. The results of those tests will determine which kids, schools and districts are succeeding, and which are failing in the eyes of the the federal government.
But what do these tests really say about education in Illinois? About the quality of a specific school or teacher? Not as much as you might think.
The problem, I believe, lies in our goals and expectations, both for students and for these tests. We need more comprehensive objectives and better ways of measuring how our kids are doing.
Standardized tests, such as the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) most Illinois students take, do not measure everything a student has learned, or should have learned, in the classroom. You can’t accurately measure a third-grader’s reading skills in three 40-minute testing sessions. The test questions reflect only a sampling of the skills a third-grader should have mastered. In other words, there is a mismatch between what is taught and what appears on the test.
Even after the test scores are released, they are of little help for individual students. Most schools, including those in Illinois, test children in the spring. By the time a teacher receives the limited information on a child’s performance, the student has already moved on to the next grade. The best teachers can do is look for patterns of low performance and retool curricula in those subjects. But without having the child for another year, there may be little teachers can do to help individual students improve.
In fact, standardized tests set many children up to fail. By ranking and comparing each student’s scores, someone will end up on the bottom of the heap. For every student above the 50th percentile mark, there is one below that mark.
In other words, someone has to fail. These tests are therefore much more about ranks and comparisons than about judging teacher or school quality.
In spite of all this, school—and student—success is judged by test results. Schools listed as “failing” are put on a watch list. If they continue to fail, they may face sanctions or lose federal funding.
Rather than improving a child’s overall education, these high-stakes tests pressure teachers to tailor their lesson plans for test success while ignoring other important skills.
In reality, teachers should employ a variety of evaluation techniques, from classroom-based tests and oral presentations to performances and essays. This would give teachers a more comprehensive look at students’ abilities.
Teachers’ learning objectives—what children should know and be able to do—should also be more inclusive than simply scoring well on standardized tests.
Learning objectives need to include behavioral, as well as academic expectations. The Department of Labor lists teamwork, cooperation and respect for others as keys for success. These valuable “success for life” skills are not measured in a standardized test—another reason parents should not rely solely on test scores to judge the quality of a school or teacher.
Student achievement should be measured, yes. But standardized tests fail to evaluate how well a student is doing overall. They encourage teachers to focus on testing material and skills to the detriment of other academic and behavioral goals.
Reform is possible, though, I believe. Standardized tests could be redesigned to cover a more manageable number of objectives. They could provide teachers with more detailed scoring information so those teachers can actually help their students improve. The comparative design of the tests could be changed to stop condemnation of underprivileged children who view themselves as school failures. Standardized tests could also be supplemented with other evaluation methods.
With these reforms, standardized tests could help teachers and schools improve education. But if tests continue to be the high stakes, garden variety we see now, the questions will continue to test much more than what any teacher or child can be accountable for.
Sharon Damore is an assistant professor at DePaul University. She teaches in the School of Education, preparing aspiring teachers to work in urban environments. She has worked as a a public and private education teacher and administrator in Chicago and Houston. She can be reached at Sdamore@depaul.edu or firstname.lastname@example.org.