Testing in its current form is a relatively new phenomenon. In the Ancient World, Socrates would ‘test’ his students through a dialogue where there were no ‘correct’ responses but simply more questions and answers. The Socratic tradition of dialogue was largely continued in Europe with students being tested through oral responses and then essays until around 150 years where we begin to see the notion of testing as something that can be standardised in a uniform fashion.
In the 19th century, the “father of American public education” Horace Mann advocated testing to provide “objective information about the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools, monitor the quality of instruction, and compare schools and teachers within each school.” At the beginning of the 20th century psychologist Alfred Binet developed a standardized test of intelligence, which would eventually become the standard IQ test we know today.
There is no question that a standardised measure of assessment holds great value in terms of being able to compare students and schools with on a national level and to flag up underachieving groups but there is a clear sense at the moment that standardised testing has become something else, that the tail is now wagging the dog and that the model may be in need of reform, something brought to national attention in the US not only by mass boycotting of tests but also by John Oliver on national TV:
For me there are several issues that focus not so much on testing itself but on the collateral damage caused by testing and how they’re being used far beyond their intended purpose:
1. Tests are no longer part of a judgement, they now are the judgement.
One of the proposed benefits of testing in the 19th century was that they would provide a diagnostic indicator of student progress and school efficacy that would inform a more wider, more balanced and measured judgement. However what we have now is a system where test scores are the judgement – it’s not so much that the tail is wagging the dog as the tail now is the dog. Referring to Horace Mann’s statewide roll-out of standardised tests in the mid 1800s, a US congress report from 1992 notes that:
It is important to point out what “standardization” meant in those days. It did not mean “norm-referenced” but rather that “. . . the tests were published, that directions were given for administration, that the exam could be answered in consistent and easily graded ways, and that there would be instructions on the interpretation of results. ’
The other issue is that the current model of testing risks exceeding its own mandate by being used mainly for school reform and teacher evaluation as opposed to pupil evaluation. Many opponents of standardised testing claim that they may not be fit for purpose on their own terms. According to James Popham standardised tests are like trying to “measure temperature with a tablespoon”
“Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. Standardized achievement tests should be used to make the comparative interpretations that they were intended to provide. They should not be used to judge educational quality.”
Combine this with an inspectorate that is data-obsessed and you have a perfect storm as this cautionary tale from Geoff Barton illustrates.
2. Standardised tests are really just a measure of who has access to specific resources
Does standardised testing evaluate a pupil’s aptitude or general knowledge or does it simply register their access to a particular set of resources? Resources here can mean a wide range of things such as the school, a private tutor, parental support but when a particular set of textbooks define success then there is an issue. This is well illustrated by the case of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) where Meredith Broussard discovered that success in her daughter’s 3rd grade test was inextricably linked to specific textbooks:
“Standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.”
Regardless of all the other inequities, the cost of these textbooks are prohibitive in many districts so the inevitable outcome is that schools in deprived areas simply cannot ‘win’ in standardised texts. Interestingly, in the 1960s the Civil Rights movement protested against standardised testing as it inevitably punished those from a certain social strata. The Coleman Report, found that a student’s home environment was the deciding factor in determining achievement. (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005) In a culture of high stakes accountability the losers will inevitably be the ones without access to the best resources.
2. Linking teacher accountability to student test scores raises difficult ethical questions
The logical end point of a high stakes system of accountability where teachers are judged on their students’ scores will be the occurrence of dubious ethical practices somewhere along the line, whether that be on a small scale with teachers ‘correcting’ a student’s coursework or on the more extreme end with institutional malpractice. Earlier this year in Atlanta eight educators were found guilty of organising a “criminal enterprise” under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) act for manipulating student scores on Georgia’s state standardized tests. Now I’m not for a second suggesting that they did this as a result of standardised testing, but the case raises some important issues around the kinds of pressure being put on teachers at the moment. What kind of a system makes people risk years in jail to improve student test scores?
Across the US right now there is a fairly widespread movement of civil disobedience with parents intervening in their children’s education and opting out of standardised tests. Whilst the moral and ethical dimensions of these decisions are unclear it is evident that the current fetish for testing has engendered a string of unintended consequences.
3. “But will this be in the test?”
Probably the most dispiriting thing a teacher can hear. We all want students to ‘achieve’ academically but should that be at the expense of intellectual curiosity and the ephemeral joy of learning that is often immeasurable? Now they are not mutually exclusive of course but when the outcomes for one far outweigh the other then something has to give and often that is the autonomy of the teacher to be able to go ‘off piste’ and follow a particular conversation or idea perhaps not directly related to the test. Teachers want their students to score well in tests but what about another measure of ‘success’ – what about the English teacher who has engendered a lifelong love of reading in a pupil? or the Physics teacher who has sparked a student’s curiosity about cosmic universe? or the languages teacher who has opened a student’s eyes to the values and customs of another country they now want to visit? Many of these things are not testable and are being subsumed by a focus on what is prescribed by an exam board and the techniques needed to be ‘successful’ in them. Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz notes that “If you impose a simplistic numerical measure and lose sight of the other important goals of the institution, then the other goals get short shrift.”
4. College dropout rates suggest that something is wrong
In the UK, figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicated that over 32,000 students dropped out of university after a year of study in 2012/13. Of those 7,420 transferred to another university, while 24,745 dropped out of higher education altogether. In the US things the picture is even more bleak where there is the “lowest college completion rate in the developed world” (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)
There seems to be a lot of blame attached to the universities themselves, but what if pre-university education is simply not preparing students for the intellectual rigour, criticality and independence needed at that level? Are students effectively being herded through a set of tests to provide data that benefits policy makers and Ofsted rather than the actual pupils themselves? Is focusing on the ability to use a broad base of knowledge to think critically being sidelined for the narrow measure of how to pass an exam?
The knock-on effect of a high-stakes testing system with increased accountability will be the limiting of both teacher and pupil agency. Apart from the impact on student mental health and stress levels, teachers are increasingly being asked to teach how to pass an exam as opposed to impart knowledge and elicit dialogue. Schools are systems of deep uncertainty and flux in which teachers are often held accountable for the unaccountable.
Part of the solution has to be to move from a high stakes, Russian Roulette, sudden-death style system to one where pupils can be evaluated on their progress in a series of low stakes, non-threatening tests that foster not only an appreciation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also the ability to think critically and to be able to embrace uncertainty. All of which will prepare them for the ‘tests’ they have ahead of them.