Public Issues Forum | Tests have many shortcomings

April 19, 2014 

Standardized testing along with the common core standards are having a big impact on our educational system.

Public schools are being asked to teach a curriculum that has become more uniform in scope and sequence and, ideally, presents each student with a similar rigorous educational experience.

Furthermore, standardized tests are being recognized as a major measure of a teacher’s and school’s effectiveness in teaching our students. These tests and test scores, being relatively easy to determine and compare across schools, are quickly gaining credence as the default measurement of the effectiveness of a school and its teachers.

As an educator, I wholeheartedly support the need for a strong curriculum. However, for several reasons, I am not convinced that a uniform curriculum and standardized tests are the best way to achieve rigor and educate our students.

First, we all have different likes and dislikes, abilities, talents and different ways to contribute. How do all these differences thrive and develop at schools that are seeking uniformity in instruction?

Where would some of this generation’s best artists, musicians, scientists and leaders be if they were forced to face an endless cycle of standardized curriculum and tests?

Is this really the best way to prepare students for futures we can’t even imagine?

As we put more and more emphasis on testing to measure effectiveness, we can compromise a teacher’s ability to nurture individual students by tempting them to “teach to the test” so that scores improve and they are rewarded.

This influence may be blatant for some teachers but more subtle for others. For example, teachers may supply students with practice tests instead of creative projects or problems.

Another question arises about the capacity of a test to measure what it is meant to measure. We would like to assume that it does, but it is very difficult to compress a body of knowledge and skills into a multiple choice or short-answer format.

A recent admission that the SAT does not correlate well with college success — precisely what it was supposed to do — should be reason enough to give standardized testing enthusiasts pause.

Another shortcoming of tests is bias. There is an inherent difficulty in developing uniform curriculum and tests that can account for regional and cultural differences. Furthermore, tests cannot adequately measure characteristics such as creativity, nuance, good will, reflection, judgment or effort, all attributes of successful people.

Although I agree with some level of testing to add to our overall knowledge of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, it should be just one tool in our chest.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to education, it is critical for us to focus on students’ individual interests and talents as a way to maximize their future contributions to society.

There’s a need for messiness, not uniformity, in education.

After all, we want our students to develop into people who think big ideas, can work together, can reason critically and are not afraid to face challenges that may not have only one correct answer.

Dan Hendey is the head of school at State College Friends School. He has been a teacher for more than 15 years and holds a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University.

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