New Internationalist

Argument: Are exams bad for children?

July 2013

Teachers Stephanie Schneider and Matt Christison go head-to-head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Stephanie

A fellow teacher once shared with me this analogy to standardized testing: it’s like checking to make sure a plant is growing properly by repeatedly ripping it out of the ground and examining the roots. When that plant is placed back into the soil, it does not remain the same but rather is traumatized by the drastic act.

YES: STEPHANIE SCHNEIDER teaches three- to six-year-olds at a public Montessori school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US. She is also an active member of the Educators Network for Social Justice, a teacher activist group, and serves on the Executive Board of her local trade union, the Milwaukee Teacher Education Association.

Just as we know of better ways to grow plants, we know of better ways to assess children. More reliable methods of assessment can provide meaningful information that assist student learning, rather than a test that often serves as a punitive device.

If we are interested in children succeeding in school then we need to provide an education rich in context and relevance, accomplished through quality instructional time. Unfortunately, as the use of standardized tests increases, more classroom time is being dedicated to exam preparation and administration, which only results in a narrowing of the curriculum.

If we are interested in success for ALL children then we need to be clear that the current testing regime does nothing to address racial and economic inequalities and instead reinforces them. Often, we find in the US that the data of such tests is used to rationalize policy that is damaging to schools in low-income neighbourhoods and in communities of colour.

Finally, the most powerful evidence that tests harm children is the emerging resistance of parents, teachers and students who see the damage first hand and are growing louder in their collective refusal to comply.

Matt

As both a teacher and a gardener, I agree that uprooting plants – and students – serves no purpose. Yet examinations, especially standardized tests, in and of themselves are not bad – any more than examining in detail the growth of a plant is bad. What is bad is how we use examinations and the misunderstandings that surround standardized testing in particular.

NO: MATT CHRISTISON is a high school principal, sessional instructor in graduate studies at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and a lifelong questioner of the status quo. He earned a Doctorate of Education in 1996 from the University of Calgary, undertaking an analysis of gender performance differences on standardized testing.

For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to examinations in this discussion as ‘standardized testing and tests’. Well-constructed, thoughtful, standardized tests have integrity in their validity and reliability. They are reliable in that well-constructed tests provide similar performances by the students in the same grade or taking the same course, under the similar or the same parameters (time, format, etc). What standardized testing does well is provide descriptive information for thoughtful use by well-trained and well-prepared teachers.

Yet, as you point out, this does not happen with much of the descriptive information we derive from well-constructed tests. The descriptive information – which can be used in a focused, diagnostic manner to provide the next steps for student learning – is often superseded by the ills of education you have presented: time constraints, justification of rankings and placements, the reinforcement of inequities.

What we need is the hybrid: standardized testing used for its descriptive and diagnostic purposes without the simplistic and inappropriate agendas of those who wish to sort, restrict and punish; along with the contextualized, rich and robust ongoing assessment of learning. If we want success for ALL students, then we must use ALL forms of assessment for the purposes they are intended, and neither hijack them for our own agendas nor reject them because they do not fit our preferences and current understandings.

Stephanie

One could say standardized tests don’t kill education; it is only the use of these tests that does. But for me, separating the use and intention is a futile task. It is their current manifestation that I deal with as a classroom teacher and even if the tests were of better quality, I still see the way testing favours certain kinds of skills as problematic.

The most powerful evidence that tests harm children is the emerging resistance of parents, teachers and students who see the damage first hand – Stephanie

I am required to give my kindergarten students the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test three times a year. Each time I explain this test is very different from what we do in the classroom. It never fails that children will try to help each other and I find myself telling them: ‘You may not help your friend solve that problem.’ I am forced to administer this test that prioritizes individual achievement and disallows any collaborative learning.

These tests do not inform my instruction. Since I am not allowed to see the content of the test, any resulting information is worthless.

I disagree that it is idealistic to use contextualized assessments – if there is a lack of training and experience on the part of teachers, then the solution is to redirect resources currently used for standardized tests to implement meaningful professional development on classroom-based assessments.

Any kind of assessment beyond that would have to be low stakes and should be given to a random selection of students only in certain grades. This can still provide valid information and yet limit the amount of resources and instructional time a test can occupy.

Matt

All forms of assessment – standardized testing and teacher-based classroom assessments – are subjective. What is emphasized (creativity, arithmetic proficiency, reading abilities, neatness, co-operation, risk taking) and what is not emphasized sends a clear and often damaging message to students, parents and teachers.

I agree with and see your critiques of standardized testing as valid, no pun intended. The politics and inappropriate uses of standardized testing do interfere with the daily work of teachers and learning in schools.

However, to turn against standardized testing and reject it is, in my mind, no better than embracing it as a panacea, as the solution to educational ills and woes, and as a means to sorting, selecting and valuing students. What we must have is a balance, the complete picture of student learning in school contexts, working with others, working alone, creating, trying and experimenting, assessing processes and products in as many robust, well-thought-out and well-developed (and open to change and constructive criticisms) assessments as possible.

Standardized testing is unlikely to disappear: and as such, we all need to take from it the insights it can provide while fighting against the political and power-based misuses that overshadow and stifle what standardized testing has to offer: descriptive information to help inform practice and support learning.

Stephanie

Imagining school without standardized testing (or very minimal testing) isn’t too difficult because examples already exist. In fact, in some of the most highly regarded private schools, standardized tests are few and far between. Additionally, in the much-lauded example of education innovation, Finland, the standardized test is used infrequently and with low stakes.

Jake Lyell/Alamy
Head in the books: do standardized exams have anything to offer students? Jake Lyell/Alamy

I know that both these examples have their own circumstances but I suggest them because I want to demonstrate the possibility. Places do exist where teachers are trusted to educate students without the reliance on a standardized test.

That said, I do appreciate your effort to mitigate the misuse of such tests and I could certainly find a test more palatable if it really did provide valuable information and did not serve to punish and reward. If such a test were to exist I would require a few additional criteria.

First of all, a standardized test should not provide a lucrative profit to some entity. I would trust a test a lot more if I knew that no-one was making money off something that was potentially damaging to my students or school. Second, the test should be clear in its intent and not be used to determine a school’s funding, a teacher’s livelihood or a student’s future. And finally, a test should be thoroughly vetted for bias with continued reflection coinciding with its use.

Matt

Ideally, you and I, as well as other parties, would work collaboratively so that the forms of assessment used would present the most well-rounded, helpful and bias-free information to support student learning. As such a situation is unlikely to occur in the immediate future, I would add the following to your criteria.

We must use all forms of assessment for the purposes they are intended and neither hijack them for our own agendas nor reject them because they do not fit our preferences – Matt

First, standardized testing would be done outside of schools and school settings. It could be done as it is conducted in Finland: students write those tests when they are ready, having completed the requisite courses, and the examinations are held in community sites, with the test questions and answers published the following day for all community members to see, discuss and review. Thus the standardized testing would be open to all types of scrutiny and transparency in and of its format, structure and presentation.

Second, standardized testing would be voluntary, with those who wish to utilize the results paying for the costs of administration, creation and development. Thus those who wish to use it would be known, and their intentions would be clear and connected directly with the testing. Should the results be used for admissions to post-secondary institutions, or ranking schools or other purposes, then those who participate would do so knowing who was to use them and why.

Perhaps this is idealistic, yet I know that open discussion about assessment and standardized testing will lead to improvements for students, learning, teachers and the community at large.

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