A response to a defense of standardized testing

One reader wrote a comment that was in part a defense of standardized testing. I responded, and I think it’s worth quoting both his comment and my reply.

He wrote, in part,

“Get rid of standardized tests and schools and teachers can do whatever they please. In some cases with highly motivated teachers, the outcome will be fantastic. In more cases with typical teachers, the outcome will be tragic.

“As Rene Descartes said in the 17th century, “if a thing (such as increased learning) exists, it exists in some amount, and if it exists in some amount, it can be measured.” Saying that something, such as increased learning, cannot be measured is implicit admission that it does not, indeed, exist.

“Until those opposed to standardized testing can come up with some other measurement instrument that is valid and reliable and worthy of parents’ trust, they are not offering the public anything meaningful. Telling parents that all standardized measures are no good, and they should simply totally trust whomever their children by chance happen to end up with in their local boundary school to do the right thing, absent any external evaluation, ..is insulting to the average citizen’s intelligence.”

Here are some of the things I wrote in response:

Standardized testing has a checkered history, as you probably know. Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” has a wealth of details. From its laudable origins as a screening device to find and **HELP** young children who were developmentally delayed, it was transmuted into a sorting device used to justify all sorts or horrific, racist, classist, and even genocidal initiatives from the UK to Germany and the USA. Of course, the use and abuse of a device in the hands of evil people doesn’t necessarily diqualify the device in the hands of decent people. After all, iron and steel can be used to wage war and murder innocent people, or they can be used to build useful buildings and highways and so on…

As a teacher, I generally found that multiple-choice tests were pretty useless, and a very blunt instrument that merely told me that student X was pretty slow while student Y was very able. However, it didn’t take me long to find that out for myself. Whenever I got alerts from the standardized testing regime that all of my students were extremely weak at skill Z, then without a single exception I discovered that the item or items that supposedly were testing skill Z were defective. As a math teacher, I found it much more informative to see HOW a student attempted to solve a problem rather than to try to guess, based on which wrong alternative they picked, what difficulty they were having. So, yeah, I don’t think that multiple-choice tests are very useful for teachers in diagnosing students’ difficulties. It takes many, many multiple-choice test items to be able to do that with much reliability, whereas one single question where they need to show their work is sufficient.

And another thing, Richard: based on my many years of coaching students, I conclude that standardized tests such as the SAT do a poor job of seeing whether students have actually learned the subject matter they were taught in school — at least in math, which is what I obviously concentrated on. To score well on the math SAT, you pretty much need to ignore most of the methods you were actually taught in school, and look for quick and clever shortcuts. The SAT has only a mild correlation with freshman-year college grades for white males, and very little correlation for any other groups. Student high school grades, given by “whomever their children by chance happen to end up with in their local boundary school” are much better predictors of college success, according to all of the literature I have read on the topic. Which is why more and more colleges are allowing students to use their high school transcripts rather than SAT or ACT scores.

One thing to consider: even the testing industry realizes that not all test items are useful. Some multiple-choice items are answered correctly more often by those who generally score LOWER on the total battery of items, so those questions have to be carefully weeded out.

(to be continued)

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