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Why Standardized Tests Don’t Work

The truth is that standardized tests underestimate the abilities of many students.

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The false promise of standardized tests

Standardized tests have long been the go-to method of measuring learning, but if we recognize one thing during this season of upended education, it’s that we should reconsider that. At the college level, where thousands upon thousands of applications are reviewed annually, the SAT and ACT have been used to weed out candidates based solely on scores, not ability or promise. In reality, these tests measure socio-economic position more than knowledge. The playing field is not level. Kids from wealthy families have more opportunities and benefits—like independent test prep, enrichment, and more academic opportunities—than their less privileged counterparts. The truth is that standardized tests underestimate the abilities of vast swathes of students, especially those who belong to underrepresented groups.

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“Picasso would never have gotten into Stanford’s visual arts program unless he had fantastic SAT scores.”

– Todd Rose
Co-founder and President of Populace, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

From the day they enter school, kids are overwhelmed with standardized tests. The average student in America’s big-city public schools takes some 112 mandatory standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and the end of 12th grade. That’s about eight per year. Eighth-graders spend an average of 25.3 hours during the school year taking standardized tests. The sad reality is that all this testing does not appear to improve student achievement.

Standardized testing is expensive. States spend over $1.7 billion every year on standardized testing in public K-12 schools. It varies state to state from $7.00 per student in New York to $114 per student in Washington, D.C. In a season of massive budget cuts and calls to defund previously established social constructs, this may be the time to decouple standardized testing from learning.

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“Tests are a symptom of a greater problem. Just think of how we’ve used them: to sort students out of potential pathways. We close doors to opportunities through tests. That equates to some really disastrous outcomes for kids.”

– Michael B. Horn
Senior Strategist, Guild Education

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Individuality matters

With the disruption to education brought on by COVID-19, all states have been given a one-year waiver to suspend federally mandated testing. As we enter a very uncertain school year, governors are starting to ask for another year’s suspension. Now’s the time to snatch back those hours previously devoted to testing and use the time to equip students with more autonomy, agency, and the ability to develop self-direction.

As we re-enter school this fall—in whatever form—support your kid’s teacher to shift to a learner-centered approach with these action steps.

  • Acknowledge how different this experience of school really is.
  • Build a connection with the kids, a trusting connection between teacher and student.
  • Reframe a negative into a positive by coming together around a sense of purpose in this new school year.
  • Ask kids what they need or want to learn. They’ll be much more motivated and interested if they’re working towards something that they want to do.

The result will be connecting the student’s goals to what is important from the perspective of the curriculum. That time reclaimed from testing becomes community building. And then to truly assess a student’s competency in a discipline like reading, teachers can sit with each student for ten minutes and do reading together.

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“What you can do in ten minutes is so powerful. There’s so much information you can get from that. You’re doing a reading assessment and one-to-one connection at the same time. For a student, that feels like someone is listening to me. They care about me. They see me. They know me.”

-Diane Tavenner
CEO and co-founder of Summit Public Schools, author of Prepared