Accountability Research Standardized Testing

Yong Zhao and William McDiarmid: Time to Rethink Standardized Testing

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Two friends got together to address an important topic for readers of the blog. Yong Zhao is a much-published international scholar based at the University of Kansas. Bill McDiarmid is Dean Emeritus of the College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

They write:

COVID-19 has disrupted schooling in its traditional sense. It has also disrupted other school related activities such as state standardized testing. As schools return to “normal” thanks to vaccination, many states are already pushing to resume standardized testing as part of the “normal” operations of formal education and to assess the so-called “learning loss” (Zhao, 2021). Resuming standardized testing is perhaps one of the worst things that can happen to children, especially after more than a year of social isolation and unprecedented disruption.

Standardized testing in schools has been criticized repeatedly for multiple reasons. A decade and a half ago, Sharon Nichols and David Berliner clearly articulate the damage to American education caused by standardized tests in their book, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Dan Koretz has cited mounting evidence to show that test-based accountability has failed to significantly improve student performance in his recent book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better(Koretz, 2017). State-mandated high-stakes testing has led educators and educational authorities to cheat, reduced education to a narrow band of the knowledge spectrum, demoralized educators, and failed to significantly close the opportunity and results gaps that marginalized students and their families continue to endure (Emler, Zhao, Deng, Yin, & Wang, 2019; Tienken & Zhao, 2013).

The negative impact of standardized testing on students cannot be overstated. First, testing discourages many students, especially historically marginalized students who may not do well on the tests for reasons outside their control. These students, primarily because of where they happen to live, have performed worse on standardized tests than their counterparts from wealthier, suburban, and mostly white neighborhoods. The results, then, are often used to hold them back or relegate them to remediation. Consequently, they miss opportunities to participate in more meaningful activities that could nurture their talents, interests, and, thus, their engagement with school.

Second, standardized testing for each grade is designed to measure students learning for that year in school. The learning thought to be measured for a given year, however, may be less important than other knowledge, skills, and dispositions students may have developed that will serve them better in their lives.  For example, although students may have not mastered certain mathematical formulae measured on the state test, they may have improved their talents, curiosity, confidence, or collaborative skills which are valuable in life (Zhao, 2018). Opportunities to build these essential skills may be rare. Mathematical formulae, on the other hand, can be retrieved online as needed. Assessment in education has been heavily focused on short-term instructional outcomes and knowledge while largely ignoring non-cognitive skills and skills needed to be life-long learners. In a world in which workers will be changing jobs four or five times and established industries will die out and new ones arise, students will need the skills suited to frequent self-reinvention.

Third, standardized testing has typically focused on two subjects: literacy and numeracy. Other subjects and domains of knowledge have been slighted or ignored. Equally important it fails to offer students opportunities to demonstrate their learning in activities and domains that are of greatest importance to them and in which they may excel. As a result, although testing results show students’ talent in taking tests in mathematics and language, it says nothing about students’ strengths and their potential to be not only good but, potentially, excellent at whatever are their innate talents and interests (Zhao, 2016). Many examples exist in multiple areas of human achievement of people who tested poorly in school but made extraordinary contributions to our world. Testing does nothing to further educators’ efforts to deploy strength-based practices that encourage and support interest-driven learners. 

After years of criticism from many students, families, and educators, and exposure of the corrupting and distorting effects of high-stakes testing, many policymakers, educational authorities, and members of the public cling to test-based accountability. Although ESEA has reduced testing requirements, the change is minimal. U.S. students may face fewer tests than a decade ago but, except for the pandemic period, students are still over-tested.  

Some argue that testing is necessary to figure out if school systems are addressing the persistent failure to justly serve marginalized students and communities. This could be accomplished, however, without high-stakes consequences for schools, educators, students, and families. We can also imagine assessments that place as much emphasis on the skills needed for the rapidly evolving world of work as on the legacy curriculum subjects. According to the World Bank, McKinsey, the OECD, and other crystal-ball-gazingorganizations, if students are to succeed in the future, these include creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, as well as non-cognitive skills such as persistence, teamwork, and conscientiousness.  Some researchers are currently testing surveys that provide reliable data on these skills (STEP, 2014).  

In line with “never waste a crisis,” the current moment of disruption is the time for us to radically rethink our addiction to high-stakes assessments. It won’t be easy. Many are heavily invested in the testing status quo. At the very least, we need a conversation that includes the voices of all concerned – students, educators, families, communities, and policymakers.  

References:

Emler, T. E., Zhao, Y., Deng, J., Yin, D., & Wang, Y. (2019). Side Effects of Large-Scale Assessments in Education. ECNU Review of Education, 2(3), 279-296. 

Koretz, D. (2017). The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Manyika, J., Lund, S., Chui, M., Bughin, J., Woetzel, J., Batra, P., . . . Sanghvi, S. (2017, November 28). Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages. McKinsey Global Institute.Retrieved 03/25/21 from:https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages

Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

STEP skills measurement surveys : innovative tools for assessing skills (English). Social protection and labor discussion paper, no. 1421. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. Retrieved 03/25/21 from: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/516741468178736065/STEP-skills-measurement-surveys-innovative-tools-for-assessing-skills

Tienken, C. H., & Zhao, Y. (2013). How Common Standards and Standardized Testing Widen the Opportunity Gap. In P. L. Carter & K. G. Welner (Eds.), Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance (pp. 113-122). New York: Oxford University Press.

Zhao, Y. (2016). From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality. Journal of Social Issues, 72(4), 716-735. 

Zhao, Y. (2018). What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Zhao, Y. (2021). Build back better: Avoid the learning loss trap. Prospects, 1-5.

Yong Zhao

Foundation Distinguished Professor

School of Education and Human Sciences

University of Kansas

Professor in Educational Leadership

Melbourne Graduate School of Education

University of Melbourne

and


G. Williamson McDiarmid

Dean Emeritus

College of Education

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil

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