Standardized Testing and the Middle Ground

If you aren’t familiar with the controversy over standardized testing, watching John Oliver explain it is probably a good way to familiarize yourself with the debate (not to mention that it’s hilarious).  Let me just give you the bullet points:

  • Too much testing: about 113 tests by graduation and these tests put a LOT of pressure on kids.
  • Standardized tests are now tied to teacher pay.
  • Poor test performance at schools takes away funding for those schools.  (That seems backwards!)
  • Teachers are spending more and more time teaching to the tests, not actually teaching content.
  • Poorly designed tests that are confusing, have errors, and don’t evaluate anything.
  • Test companies like Pearson make huge profits on tests, study materials, and textbooks.
  • Some tests are scored on quotas or have other failures in the evaluation method.
  • Tests fail to evaluate students in a real, tangible way.


Frankly, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than a teacher to know the needs of his or her students, so standardized testing is both misguided and insulting to the professionalism of teachers everywhere.  However, instead of getting bogged down in that quagmire, I’d like to just share two anecdotes that I think really help elucidate the state of testing in America.

testing1.  I’ve been working in Vancouver, Washington for a tutoring company.  My job is to proctor pre-assessments exams for students.  The students take either the GRADE (reading assessment) or the GMADE (math assessment).  These are standardized tests offered through PEARSON which, if you watched the John Oliver clip, tells you something about the tests.  The pre-assessments give my employer some kind of metric to judge where the student is starting from.  I then tutor the students based on the materials supplied by my employer and, at the end of the tutoring period, administer a post-assessment.

Here’s the catch-22: the students I work with qualify for supplementary educational services (SES) through the No Child Left Behind Act.  In other words, these students are poor.  Taxpayer money pays for about 20 hours of tutoring but those 20 hours include both the pre and post assessments.  In other words, students endure two hours of testing just to get 18 hours of tutoring, which is practically nothing.  Those test are also supplementary to their regular education, meaning that they still have the usual tests at school.

The tests are also not limited by age group.  I had one student in 1st grade who had to take the hour-long pre-assessment.  After 18 hours of tutoring, he was really taking off.  He blew through his workbook so fast that I had to come up with new lesson plans and could do subtraction problems above his grade level.  But then I administered the post test and he bombed it.  standardized-testing-comic3I knew he was capable of doing a lot harder material but he’s in first grade and just does not have the attention span to sit through an hour test without some kind of coaxing or interaction.  He’s also from an immigrant family that speaks Spanish at home.  The test makes no accommodation for English Language Learners (ELLs).  What’s more, my employer gives me study materials based on grade level and subject (reading or math).  So the “pre-assessment” doesn’t inform them about what books should be used if students are above or below grade level… It just shows if progress has been made after the student takes the post test.

tumblr_lop8ayDJa51qf1m5po1_12802. On the other hand, I have a second job in a tutoring center in Beaverton.  Lately, I’ve been working a lot with this one student who goes to one of these private, “alternative” schools.  During my first session with him I asked what grade he was in.  His response?  “I don’t know.”  His school doesn’t assign traditional grades or even grade levels.  I’m not completely sure what the philosophy behind this is, so I won’t demonize it.  However, I can speak to this particular student’s ability: he’s the age of an 8th grader but struggles with first grade math (the same math that my bilingual student in Vancouver would find easy).  He’s learning phonics and struggles with basic reading skills.  None of this is to say that he’s unintelligent.  Quite the opposite.  But based on my interactions with him he’s never been held accountable for actually learning anything.  He’s been brought up in a culture that tells him that all forms of assessments are part of a pointless societal paradigm.  We have a lot of discussions about why knowing basic math or being able to read semi-fluently will help him in “real life.”  He’s never been challenged and, so, never had to rise to the occasion.  “Real life” might not offer a lot of trivia in the form of a test but their will be challenges, necessary skills and experience, and times when “it’s too hard, so I won’t even try” won’t be an acceptable excuse.

The thing is, I believe in tests, grades, and high standards.  We have to expect a lot from students and we have to help them be successful by giving them the confidence, skills, and support.  And I also think there does need to be some kind of measuring stick so that we know where students need help and where they excel.  But there is a middle ground!  Giving a 1st grader an hour test is ridiculous, especially since it isn’t the only one he will receive.  Not bothering to teach an 8th grader to read a few short paragraphs because “it will destroy his self-esteem” is just as ridiculous, especially since the real world will do that as soon as he enters it, since he can’t read.  Vilifying teachers for every failure of an underfunded, overcrowded school is ridiculous.  America– get your act together.  This isn’t that hard to figure out!


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