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Argument: Standardized tests poorly measure real student learning

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"What's Wrong With Standardized Testing?". December 17th, 2008 - Are standardized tests fair and helpful evaluation tools? Not really. Standardized tests are tests on which all students answer the same questions, usually in multiple-choice format, and each question has only one correct answer. They reward the ability to quickly answer superficial questions that do not require real thought. They do not measure the ability to think or create in any field. Their use encourages a narrowed curriculum, outdated methods of instruction, and harmful practices such as retention in grade and tracking. They also assume all test-takers have been exposed to a white, middle-class background. (See "How Standardized Testing Damages Education," a FairTest fact sheet.)

Are standardized tests objective?

The only objective part of most standardized tests is the scoring, when it is done by machine. What items to include on the test, the wording and content of the items, the determination of the "correct" answer, choice of test, how the test is administered, and the uses of the results are all decisions made by subjective human beings.

Are test scores "reliable"? A test is completely reliable if you would get exactly the same results the second time you administered it. All existing tests have "measurement error." This means an individual's score may vary from day to day due to testing conditions or the test-taker's mental or emotional state. As a result, many individual's scores are frequently wrong. Test scores of young children and scores on sub-sections of tests are much less reliable than test scores on adults or whole tests.

Do test scores reflect real differences among people? Not necessarily. To construct a norm-referenced test (a test on which half the test-takers score above average, the other half below), test makers must make small differences among people appear large. Because item content differs from one test to another, even tests that claim to measure the same thing often produce very different results. Because of measurement error, two people with very different scores on one test administration might get the same scores on a second administration. On the SAT, for example, the test-makers admit that two students' scores must differ by at least 144 points (out of 1600) before they are willing to say the students' measured abilities really differ.

[...]Do multiple-choice tests measure important student achievement? Multiple-choice tests are a very poor yardstick of student performance. They do not measure the ability to write, to use math, to make meaning from text when reading, to understand scientific methods or reasoning, or to grasp social science concepts. Nor do these tests adequately measure thinking skills or assess what people can do on real-world tasks.

Are test scores helpful to teachers? Standardized, multiple choice tests were not originally designed to provide help to teachers. Classroom surveys show teachers do not find scores from standardized tests very helpful, so they rarely use them. The tests do not provide information that can help a teacher understand what to do next in working with a student because they do not indicate how the student learns or thinks. Good evaluation would provide helpful information to teachers.

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