Questioning Standardized Education: What is the Alternative?

Kristen Fragnoli

The standards movement is sweeping the United States. From conservatives to liberals, so called ‘higher standards’ are viewed as the answer to many of our country’s most urgent questions about the quality of education.Within New York State, the Board of Regents determined standards to be coupled with mandated state assessments, starting as low as 4th grade.These high stakes tests, as a rider to higher standards, have caused deep reservations among some educators, parents, and students.

The movement for statewide testing has been a mixed blessing.The statewide tests have been used as educational report cards to allow policymakers and the public to see how the schools are doing.Many believe that the demand for testing and accountability has increased measure-driven instruction.Tests have been composed mostly of multiple choice questions, which cannot assess a student’s ability to come up with his or her own answers.Many believe that test scores are being used inappropriately, that many tests are not accurately measuring student progress, and that standardized tests damage school instructional qualities (A Guide to Testing Reform in New York, 1990). 

Within New York State the Department of Education has mandated that students must take a series of assessments throughout their elementary school years.In fourth grade, students are required to take language arts assessment, science assessment and math assessment.In fifth grade, students will be required to take a new social studies assessment that will include third grade and fourth grade curriculum.These tests are considered to be high-stakes tests since they are associated with important consequences for examinees and scores that are seen as reflections of instructional quality.The stakes vary depending on the context in which the testing takes place.For New York students, test results are used in a variety of ways: grade promotion, summer school, teacher evaluation, district evaluation, academic intervention services, and allocation of funds.With so much riding on how New York State students perform on these state assessments, teachers are pressured into guaranteeing high scoring students.In many districts, raising test scores has become the single most important indicator of school improvement.As a result, teachers and administrators feel enormous pressure to ensure that test scores go up.

This pressure plays out in the classroom in a variety of ways. Teachers feel pressure to teach to the test and cover only the material that will be tested. This is evident in teachers stopping the introduction of new curricular instruction early in the year and spending the rest of the school year reviewing information already taught, in preparation for the test.In the case of the pending fifth grade social studies test in New York State, to be administered in the month of November, 40% of the test will concentrate on third grade curriculum and 60% will draw from the fourth grade curriculum.Consequently, the teacher will put on hold the new curriculum, to review all third and fourth grade material, in hopes that the students will excel on the test.

Many educators believe that the testing practices used in the classroom influence what and how information is being taught, and, consequently, what students learn.In many cases teachers feel so much pressure to produce high scores, they use the test as curriculum and teach not only the content but the format (ex. multiple choice) of the test. 

“A meta-analysis of research on test preparation showed that the effect of coaching students on items that parallel those on the test had a .23 to .45 standard deviation effect on the test taken” (Smith and Fey, 2000, p.339).Teachers can inflate scores of students up to six months, making steadiest appear half a school year ahead (Smith and Fey, 2000, p.339).The question then remains – are the students learning more or learning how to take a test? This research goes hand in hand with statistics showing the first go of standardized tests results in low overall achievement scores.By the second year of administering the assessment scores are starting to rebound.Take New York States 4th grade English Language Arts Assessment debut in 1999, more than 50 percent of the state’s 4th graders were deemed at risk of not graduating in the year 2007 (Brooks & Brooks, 1999, p.20).By the second year of testing NYS students and teachers had made miraculous strides in raising test scores.

This tendency for teachers to center instruction on the form of questions contained on the mandated test in hopes of guaranteeing high scoring students, can be tied to teacher professional development which centers on teaching teachers to teach to the test.This becomes evident when viewing the NYSCSS annual conference brochure.Thirty-five sessions offered new assessment material or specifically mentioned DBQ or primary document analysis material.The use of primary material or data based questioning can be a very effective form of assessment and instruction. However, to implement DBQs within a program solely for students to score higher on a test, and not for students to see the historical or sociological significance of the material that is being analyzed, is educational malpractice. Although data based questions have merit, on the fifth grade NYS assessment, students will only have to answer one DBQ question, worth 30% of their grade.Consequently, these same fifth graders will have to answer 50 multiple choice questions, worth 50% of their grade, thus sending the message to teachers and students to teach and memorize what is being tested.

Knowledge should not be viewed as an end in itself.This view of education leaves no time for extending student knowledge by applying it to the lives of people and their social conditions, proposing solutions to societal problems, or recognizing responsibility to their community. It becomes evident with the establishment of high-stakes testing that district results are more important than the discourse which is necessary to instill agency within our students in hopes that they can work towards the betterment of society. 

Many believe that despite all of this, tests will provide a system to improve our schools by measuring them against each other and objective criteria. However, one must also be aware that the criteria of comparison may seem objective on the surface, yet these assessments do not take into consideration the existing differences in race, class and resources.In addition, one needs to be aware of the Lake Wobegon effect, coined this by Dr. Hohn Jacob Crannell, when he researched the puzzling reports from school districts across the country reporting that their students were above average.Carannell discovered, “More than 90 percent of the fifteen thousand elementary school districts and 80 percent of the secondary school districts in the nation reported scores above the national norm, instead of the expected 50 percent.”He provided a variety of explanations; students who sit for a norm referenced standardized test are compared with a norm group.This norm group is tested cold without any preparation on test questions.This means that the school district may have scored higher than the norm group, but not necessarily higher than the average of all students taking the test (Smith and Fey, 2000, p.339).

Education which is based on test score comparison and promotes a learning environment dependent on test prep packages sold by textbook companies, that does not allow for teacher input, creativity or student interest cannot bridge the gap between real life and learning. Just as research has shown that children learn by trial and error, we as educators have to be willing to take chances and break away from the existing parameters and styles to try out new methods and content.We need to be willing to let the students run with an idea or question and not be halted by the standards or high-stakes testing.

This new view encourages teaching methods, such as, interdisciplinary approaches, which will ease the pressure of covering large bodies of information.It takes the onerous off the almighty test and allows children to be self-initiating and self-evaluating in their own learning process.The ability for a child to experience personal meaning in the learning process is much more valuable than the accumulation of facts.

Educators must offer students a chance to demonstrate that they possess sophisticated knowledge and understanding that go beyond their skills of reading and writing and center on the child’s uniqueness and life experiences. It is through these life experiences, their situatedness, that one needs to assist children to view the world with their eyes, heart and mind open.Dewey wrote, “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action (Greene, 1995, p. 177).” 

Incorporating material that relates to different students’ situatedness would empower them in a variety of ways.This is enforced by the belief that they get to know not just about the family they were born into, but about their extended identity as well: who they are, what their place in the world is, and what they can claim as their personal cultural heritage.Currently, students who are in much need of capturing and rejoicing in their identities are taught rote factual information, which kills their creativity and creates passive learners.This has resulted in schools that reinforce the separation of curriculum from the child’s life experience.The challenge for the teacher, then, lies in deciding what aspects of important content match up with elements of students’ lives.The most important way of personalizing education lies in the connection students make with their own families and experiences. In this way students will be able to critically question, continually discover new meanings, and to feel comfortable in acting creatively.

The basic theory justifying such tests- that a student can demonstrate the knowledge of a discipline by completing a multiple-choice test - has little support.If researchers, educators, and parents find fault in the premise behind high stakes testing, and its costs are so severe, then why are states across the country accelerating the creation, administration, and value placed on test scores? Tests have become the chosen means in the evaluation of students and school districts because they are cost effective and the general public believes schools and students should be accountable for outcomes as measured by tests.In this way tests can be regarded as vehicles for advancing political ambitions and unstated ideological ends. This quick, cheap, and ineffective plan for accountably has stolen the limelight from other issues in education – what is being taught, what is not being taught, and what are the political motives behind these decisions?

Teachers are handed the New York State standards and are expected to teach from them.To insure teacher compliance, these standards are followed up with a series of high stakes tests.Many educators have jumped upon the standards train while it was leaving the station, before reflectively viewing where this train would lead the institution of education.Teachers and local communities have lost their ability to view curriculum and assessment according to and for the sake of their unique student population.This crucial role of education has been usurped by politicians that promote the beliefs and policies that the same curriculum for all is equal and that a test score can measure true assessment of learning.To actually succeed in changing the structure of education this hegemony has to be altered.The whole society has to view the purpose of education in a different light.As millions of elementary students across the country sit down to take a series of state mandated assessments, we as parents, educators and community members need to raise ideological concerns about the control of knowledge and its social consequences.

Works Cited

FairTest, and NYPIRC, Standardized Tests and Our Children: A Guide to Testing Reform in New York, 1990.
Lee Smith, Mary lee, Fey, Patricia, “Validity and Accountability in High-Stakes Testing,” Journal of Teacher Education 51 (2000): 5, 334-343.
Brooks, Martin, Brooks, Jacqueline, “The Courage To Be Constructivist,” Educational Leadership 57 (1999): 3, 18-24.
Greene, Maxine.Releasing the Imagination.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
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