It’s testing time in our schools. Standardized exams are a terrible way to measure student learning.
Our nation gives more authority to testing companies than it does to teachers. Multiple-choice questions reduce all of our students’ thinking to picking one correct fill-in-the-bubble answer.
It’s springtime across America, and the familiar sounds fill the air — birds chirping in the early hours, the cracks of baseball bats on opening day and classrooms filled with utter silence. It’s testing time, one of my least-favorite times of year as an educator and as a parent of elementary school-aged children.
This past week, I proctored the SAT in the high school where I work, East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. Simultaneously, my daughter was on her last day of a two-week elementary school-required exam called the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. It’s my 18th year administering a state exam in the Chicago area, and my first time being a parent of a child taking one.
I’ve written previously about the many shortcomings of standardized, multiple-choice-based tests. A barrage of research has proved racial bias to be present in such exams, test anxiety can affect students’ scores and too many important educational decisions are often made for both individuals and schools based on the results. Can a student’s scores get them into a certain college? Will this score put a student in a certain class in the next grade?
I’ve also been on the faculty of two high schools in CPS where test score averages were analyzed at all-staff meetings and administrators made decisions about curriculum based on the school-wide average. District-wide in CPS, as well, test scores have been used as part of a school’s quality rating and in decisions to close schools.
My dislike of standardized, multiple-choice exams is based on two factors: the test format and the false sense of security these tests provide to those who make important decisions about education.
First, multiple-choice questions reduce all of our students’ thinking to picking one correct fill-in-the-bubble answer. Students are not asked to produce or explain their thinking. And three out of four answers provided are meant to trick them.
Does this sort of question-and-answer show a person’s knowledge? Maybe, but it’s also possible it could be a guess, a misreading or miscalculation, or show the ability to be tricked. Machines that score the tests have no idea.
Yet our nation places great importance on these tests, with educators and administrators using them to make decisions about students’ futures and a school’s performance — because scores are a number. Scores are data, something firm and easy to put into a category.
But as an educator, I can attest that when we talk about our students’ understanding and learning, we don’t experience it as a number.
Let’s take my background, literacy. I don’t determine my students’ or my own child’s understanding of a text based on a score. I do so through a conversation, through their explanation via writing or speaking, through their growth as writers and readers across multiple teacher-created activities and assessments.
President Joe Biden ran on a campaign promise to curb testing, and during the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the education world listened. Colleges admitted students based on portfolios, videos, transcripts and interviews. Students in elementary schools spent more time with their teachers instead of clicking answers on a computer. Our schools didn’t implode — they innovated, using other sources of information to make decisions.
Proponents of testing will say that the scores can help predict college or life success. Yet research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research has shown that high school GPAs are much better predictors of college success than test scores. We don’t trust grades, though, because our nation gives more authority to testing companies than it does to our teachers.
Our nation must pass that authority to our teachers. Portfolio-based assessments, student grades, teacher-based tests, interviews, observations and other classroom experiences can easily take the place of standardized exams. These types of assessments can give information about our students in much more substantive ways than standardized, multiple-choice assessments — and allow others to view students as humans, not just numbers.
Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified.
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