Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Previous Previous Next Next
Standardized tests - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Standardized tests
I'm not doing these rants in any sort of fair order. I know.

leapin_jot requested a rant on standardized tests, and I kind of warned her that I'm a fan of standardized tests, and feylin17 wanted to know why, so it seemed like a good one to do next.

First, though, I want to say that I don't believe that standardized tests should be a huge part of a school's curriculum. A few review sessions maybe, so kids are comfortable with the format, and of course a generalized knowledge of what kids are expected to know should go into lesson-planning, but class after class after class devoted to how to take a test?

That honestly kind of defeats the entire purpose of a standardized test.

There are two kinds of standardized tests that I'm thinking of. I like them both, though for different reasons.

The first is the basic SAT/ACT/whatever. It has a lot of power in academia (if not as much as people think--once you get past a certain score, no one in admissions gives a damn how far past it you are), but isn't related to actual grades in school. I like these because...

Okay, wince now. I like them because I find them fun. I took the LSAT to amuse myself even though I never entertained serious thought about being a lawyer, and I scored in the 90th percentile. I love the percentiles. I love seeing where I stand. And not just in things I'm good at, either. I was always in the low percentiles in gym tests when we had to take them, and that was good to know as well. All of us live in smallish circles, and we have no idea whether or not they're typical. This sort of universal standard test put me in the same scoring pool as thousands others and judged us all on the same standard. How many did as well as I did? How many did better? It gave me some kind of bearing on what my skill levels were and what my strengths and weaknesses were. On the gym ones, where I did poorly, I knew I needed work. On the verbal/logical sorts of tests, I kicked butt and could just enjoy it.

Granted, not everyone's cup o' tea, but even at their worst, they're just hoops you have to jump through for college apps, after which you never have to worry again. And since admissions officers know that not everyone is a test taker, most good schools are more than happy to entertain other parts of one's application more seriously if they are significantly more attractive than an SAT score. I know at my old school (I worked in admissions, and am going on actual practice, not wishful thinking), the college essay was weighted more heavily, as were high school grades, community service, and extracurricular activities. So there's no reason to freak out on them, and they give some kind of neat statistical snapshots of a given year's students. I might question how expensive the silly things are--I've been tossing around the notion of taking the GMATs or maybe trying to improve on my LSATs, but keep running short on money--but I can't see the big moral outrage.

On the matter of the obscure vocabulary and reading passages, nothing annoys me more than the argument that, "This passage is about skiing in the Alps! How could a poor inner city kid be expected to do as well on it as other people?" To which I say, for heaven's sake, it's a reading comprehension question, designed to test the ability to comprehend an unfamiliar passage and answer questions about it. If it were familiar, it would kind of blow the point. I've never traveled or been skiing in the Alps, either, and it's all quite an alien world, but in reading comp all of the answers are right there on the exam. The questions are basically, "Can you spot the answer to this question in the above passage?" And a familiarity could be a disadvantage, because if the passage happens to be wrong about something, the right answer for reading comp is going to be the wrong answer by pre-existing knowledge. And frankly, of all the aptitudes necessary for life in college, I can't think of one more important than being able to comprehend an unfamiliar passage. Unless it's the ability to be able to suss out the meaning of a word by context or breakdown of its various components, of course.

Er, that was a slightly sideways tangent. It just annoys me that if a quarter of the energy spent protesting obscure words on the SAT were spent teaching students vocabulary building skills, there wouldn't be a problem, because I do not believe that any group of students as a class is incapable of learning to read a dictionary (knowing how a word got to be the way it is turns out to be a great way of learning to look at new words), and I know that you can go to a public library for free and get dictionaries to read. Heck, you can usually get to decent etymology for free from a computer at http://www.dictionary.com.

The other kind of standardized test is the comprehensive end-of-year exam, which can replace a grade in a class (as our Regents exams did) or may be a large section of a cumulative grade, or may simply be something the student has to pass in order to graduate (as with Massachusetts' MCAS). The reason I like these is that they are equalizers--whether you're a rich kid attending school in a posh suburb or a poor one scrabbling for supplies downtown, your school is expected to provide you with at least a certain minimal level of education, and the end-of-year exam that comes from outside of the school milieu holds it to that responsibility. Massachusetts gave about seven years worth of warning before the MCAS became mandatory (and you get nine chances to take it before you even run out of senior year time), so that was plenty of time to become familiar with the material and incorporate it into the curriculum.

Ideally, a test like that should be no more than a formality--of course the students already know the material; they've been learning it all year. Might want some refreshing on material that's a little rusty (maybe some algebra if you've been taking geometry that year or whatnot), but really, no big deal. I had one Regents teacher--the delightful Mrs. D, who taught biology--who said on the first day of the year that she expected us to do ten points better on the Regents exam than we did in her class, because she expected a whole lot more of us than the state of New York did. And at the end of the year, the class, with very few exceptions, breezed through the test after only one or two review sessions. Why? Because Mrs. D didn't teach to the test. She internalized what the test included, made sure it was part of the curriculum, then promptly taught right past it.

So, wouldn't it have made more sense if she'd set the exam and tested us on her standards?

:momentary retroactive panic at the thought of the GPA drop this would have caused: ;)

Heck, I'd vote for her as a Regents writer, but that's not the point of the test. The test says, "New York state students with a Regents diploma are expected to have at least this level of education in biology." That she taught beyond it is great, but standardized tests go for the minimum, not the maximum, of what is expected. I'd be very much in favor of rewarding students and teachers who go far beyond expectations.

The point of the standardized test is to impose an outside, objective standard. It guarantees that no matter where the student lives, he or she will be the beneficiary of at least a certain level of expectation, with the thought that at least that level is necessary to function in college or be considered reasonably competent in whatever skill or knowledge base is being tested.

If you'll excuse the fannish-sounding digression, I found a great example of another reason that I love standardized tests in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--all year, the kids had been marked by an unfair and incompetent teacher who graded based on her opinions and had very little respect for the concept of actually learning the material. The students banded together to study (and learn to defend themselves), and when the outside examiners came in with their standardized test (the OWLs), they were able to be graded fairly by people who had no stake in the year's conflicts, on material that was actually necessary to their subjects.

Now, most schools aren't being run by Dolores Umbridge, but any place where people spend eight hours a day (or twenty-four, if it's a boarding school) is going to be riddled with politics and conflict. Some of it will be between students and other students, some of it will be between teachers and other teachers. And some will be between teachers and students. Sometimes it will be positive--the teacher who "discovered" a brilliant student and desperately wants that student to succeed. Sometimes it will be negative--the student vehemently disagrees with a position that is of great value to the teacher. This can provide valuable educational experience--in both directions--but when it comes to making sure that the student is graded fairly, having an outside standard, independent of the emotional issues involved, is a good way to defuse the potential time bomb aspect of it. Is the favored student really doing brilliant work, or is more work still needed? Does the disagreeable student really make a bad argument, or is his evidence a valid defense of his point of view? Getting someone who has no special stake in these issues helps clear the slate.

Anyway, that's why I love standardized tests.
54 comments or Leave a comment
epsilon_delta From: epsilon_delta Date: January 29th, 2005 07:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think standardized tests are a good idea in theory because of the reasons you state, but I don't think a lot of them are accurate measures of one's aptitude. The main problem I have with them are the fact that they concentrate more on tricks and capitalize on careless mistakes rather than testing actual understanding. Take, for example, a math problem. Let's say I accidentally made a small arithmetic error in the middle of a problem that took about 5 minutes to solve, and I have every step correct except for that mistake in the middle. In a normal school test, I'd get maybe deducted 0.5 points for it out of a total of 5 points for the problem, whereas in a standardized test, I'd get the entire question wrong and even get negative points for choosing the wrong answer.

When I first took the SAT I, I had no prior exposure to the test and just went in and got 1390. After that, I read some SAT Prep books that taught me the tricks they tended to use and how to maximize the score by improving my test-taking skills (not my actual knowledge), took it again, and got 1520. This was over the summer, so it's not like I learned new material, but rather, I learned how to take multiple choice tests.

I tend to like the SAT IIs better, because I think they focus more on content and actual knowledge. I got 720 on the SAT I Math (second try), after about two months of preparation. I got 800 on the SAT II Math: IIc with only one day of studying beforehand. I think a more generous bell curve had something to do with it as well, but if you think about it, how accurate can these results be?

Unless standardized tests are put in the same format as normal tests (i.e. with a person actually paying attention to a full solution rather than a machine checking a bubbled-in answer), I think it just gives misleading results.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 29th, 2005 07:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have no idea what the grading on the SATs mean anymore, and only a very slight idea that SAT IIs have replaced the old Achievement Tests. The scoring has been completely overhauled at some point, though. How much did the score change jump your percentile?

The thing is, the test prep books do teach the things you need to improve aptitude, which is what the tests, well, test. They aren't meant to test pre-existing knowledge. The SAT practices I took tended to have explanations based on things like parsing words down to their constituent elements, practicing on judging the tone of the passages, etc.

It's true that math mistakes can be relatively minor, but when it's a multiple choice format, the kind error you're talking about would not likely show up as an answer option, which would alert you that you need to go back and check your work. If it were just fill in the blank with the answer you come up with (and only be graded on that), I'd agree, but the chances that a random arithmetic error will produce one of the options on the list are pretty low; the options are designed to fall into the traps of incorrect problem structuring. (Eg, getting the arithmetic right but choosing the wrong equation to solve the problem will net you one of the answer options, while using the right formula but subtracting the wrong number won't.) On a simple level, if the question were, solving for X, x+3=7, then the answer options in multiple choice would be

a) 10 (on the theory that the student might add instead of subtract)
b) 4 (obviously, correct answer)
c) 2.667 (divided by three)
d) 21 (multiplied by three)

An arithmetic goof would be more likely accidentally subtracting four, which would net you 3, which wouldn't be an answer.
tests, etc. - (Anonymous) - Expand
Re: tests, etc. II - (Anonymous) - Expand
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: January 29th, 2005 07:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
The problem I am finding/have found with the Regents is that my worse teachers teach directly to the test. My school has a poor science department (when I was in 10th grade, they switched the years one takes for Earth Science and Biology, so there were twice as many students in Bio and 5 in ES; we had two Bio teachers. I got the stand-in, and she knew nothing- the older kids in the back actually convinced her that Gatorade makes you sweat colors) anyway, and the Physics/Chem teacher (we have but one for both subjects) always goes on about what the Regents needs on this subject. We're not going into that in much depth because it isn't on the Regents. They're only going to do it this way on the Regents. I'm only going to give you tests that are made up of bits of old Regents. The fourth graders are getting that now, too.

Anyway...standardized tests are all right, as long as you don't teach to them.

(And now I will let it out. I AM FROM THE SAME STATE AS FERNWITHY!)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 29th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
We're not going into that in much depth because it isn't on the Regents.
That's just stupid. I mean, profoundly stupid. But it goes to my support for the tests, because sheesh, if they weren't held to at least that, what would these lazy twits come up with on their own?
(no subject) - feylin17 - Expand
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 29th, 2005 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Why should the government fix it, though? The tests are a great diagnostic, especially in the several years in which they are taken before they're mandated. If a school isn't performing well, why isn't the school going into paroxysms of self-examination and self-scourging? Seven years is long enough to change the curriculum, and frankly, the curriculum is, generally speaking, the problem. What the state does is a check-up. What the school is supposed do is a cure.
awaywithpixie From: awaywithpixie Date: January 29th, 2005 08:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I totally and thoroughly agree with you Fern. Having been educated in Australia in a state where standardisation was 'teh evol' (and having taught in it also) I could not agree more with the need for properly administered standardised tests amongst other types of assessment.

So, wouldn't it have made more sense if she'd set the exam and tested us on her standards?

If she did that here, then her exam would have to go into comparability testing with all the other tests in the state, and the results given would have to be moderated against the rest of the state. Students might find their results changed because of this process...

the college essay was weighted more heavily, as were high school grades, community service, and extracurricular activities.

Just goes to show how different the American and Australian systems are. Extra curricular activities and community service are completely irrelevant to university entrance (probably because schools don't provide the extra curricular activities - you do them privately and if you can't afford to do it you are at a disadvantage). It's 100% final results, plus a folio or interview if you are doing fine arts or drama.

chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: January 29th, 2005 08:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, but I highly doubt that your standardized tests are as stupid as ours. Is it the British system in Australia (GCSEs and such) or the American (math and verbal are the two sections of the SAT, and then the state tests that really are the bare minimum)?
likeafox From: likeafox Date: January 29th, 2005 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm also a *gasp* fan of standerdized tests. Granted, a lot of this stems from my odd ability to do really well on them :P but also for all the reasons you mentioned. My school likes to taught itself as chock full of "academic excellence" and sometimes it's nice to know how much of that is BS. (And a good bit is :P)
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: January 29th, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm a fan of standardised tests to a certain point, where I stop being a fan. First of all, I got into my first college because I sent them my SAT scores (1490, if I remember right) and they wrote back and said "yes", so I never wrote an essay or talked about extracurricular activities at all. Of course it was a tiny little junior college in Leadville Colorado, but they helped me figure out how to get residency and financial aid and I had a great time there and pulled off good grades. (And no, it wasn't as much of a coast as might sound. One of my courses was Logic, and we did a truth functional sentential calculus for most of the quarter that was more fun than any quiz could ever be.)

And I'm a fan of the MCAS. I worked in Roxbury, and I got very tired of having one or two children, usually girls, who were reading at what I considered grade level. Between Harry Potter (which cured a lot of kids of the fear of fat books) and the MCAS (which made the teachers teach the stuff even to the kids they thought of as being at a disadvantage) I suddenly had more than a dozen good readers coming in every week. It really cut down on the kids who weren't being exposed to the harder material because they "couldn't handle it". And it helped narrow down the teachers' definition of that group to the few kids who really couldn't. And a standard curriculum helped cut down on the number of kids who studied Aztecs every year for four years and never saw a thing about Ancient Greece.

That said, I hate the way standardized tests are done. They should be diagnostic, and multiple guess tests should be graded and the answers back the next flipping day. All you have to do is run them through an OCR, for cripes sake. What's this three month delay thing? And the end of the year tests with essays? Should all be graded over a long break by a convention of the teachers who will get those kids the next year. Back on the following Tuesday at the latest.

No teacher is going to be cheerful Charley when grading an essay if they've got a better than even chance of seeing that kid in their classroom come September, after all.

Cut down the paperwork for teachers (why on earth should they have to code lesson plans?) and tell them what needs to be covered and get out of the way.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 30th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC) (Link)
And I'm a fan of the MCAS. I worked in Roxbury, and I got very tired of having one or two children, usually girls, who were reading at what I considered grade level. Between Harry Potter (which cured a lot of kids of the fear of fat books) and the MCAS (which made the teachers teach the stuff even to the kids they thought of as being at a disadvantage) I suddenly had more than a dozen good readers coming in every week. It really cut down on the kids who weren't being exposed to the harder material because they "couldn't handle it". And it helped narrow down the teachers' definition of that group to the few kids who really couldn't. And a standard curriculum helped cut down on the number of kids who studied Aztecs every year for four years and never saw a thing about Ancient Greece.

Yeah, I've noticed some big improvements, too. And I note that the second the test became required, the scores jumped, so it sounds like it's just a question of realizing that yes, you do need to apply yourself.
bethan_b_bad From: bethan_b_bad Date: January 29th, 2005 11:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you make a fair point about standardised tests. My main problem with them is that kids of seven and up are simply put under too much pressure to pass them, when their teacher, who knows the kids inside out and what they are and are not capable of, could assess them that much better.
For example, I'm British and until recently, seven-year-olds had to take standardised tests (SATs) in English, Maths and Science. I took it- happily, I was always good at tests and consequently breezed through, but I vividly remember my friend being in tears because she didn't do as well as her parents wanted her to. She wasn't even seven yet- having been born late in August, she was nearly a year younger than me, but because she was in the same school year she had to do exactly the same test. She was better than I was at Science and Maths, but went to pieces under the pressures imposed by time restraints and the need to do well.
Aged eleven, the last year of junior school, we all took another standardised test in the same three subjects. Where was the point? They didn't particularly affect our classes in secondary school (sure, they did at first, but a lot of kids were moved classes in the first month because they were that much better than their results gave them credit for) as we were only 'setted' (placed in groups according to our abilities) in Maths and English the first year anyway. They didn't affect what school we went to. What they did do was affect our friendships -I lost my best friend because my results were better than hers, and she couldn't handle the comments of her parents ('Why didn't you do as well as Bethan?')- and our classes: we spent almost all of our last year at primary school being taught how to pass the SATs. The SATs for eleven-year-olds are still in place, and I still don't see the point.
leapin_jot From: leapin_jot Date: January 30th, 2005 03:33 am (UTC) (Link)

age appropriate

This is more the problem that I have with standardized tests. I really couldn't careless if they choose to give adults tests to be adults. It would be stupidity, yes, and half the population wouldn't pass, but at least they would be old enough and mature enough to deal with it and hopefully get some help.

What I don't like is when nine-year-olds are told, pass this test or fail this grade. They are not mature enough to deal with that kind of pressure and it doesn't belong in a school. Tests reward the intelligent and punish the less intelligent. Well, newsflash, that happens already in real life. Tests have become a political tool, and the welfare of the students involved has been completely ignored.
story645 From: story645 Date: January 30th, 2005 01:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Where do AP's fit in? They cost around 82 dollars a shot, most colleges says they won't take most of the exams anymore, and the classes are always taught almost straight to the test. My issue with the regents was that I had to take them even though I already proved my competency with SAT II's. Yeah, only reason I'm not a fan is cause I did my best on the math regents, but scored best on the verbal and writing oriented SAT's and on my History AP's, and want to go to a math school. But really, the AP exams feel like an experiment to sound as pretentious as possible. For one essay, I wrote about Jane Austen, another how it was all America's fault. I got 5's, and I'm wondering why? I barely scraped some history facts, I still don't know if the America essay wasn't all heresy. It really feels like just needing to know how to write the essay the College Board wants.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 30th, 2005 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I took an AP class with no thought of credit--didn't pay for it and didn't take the test; it was just the only advanced English class (I went to a small school). I was annoyed--I took my English Achievements when I had a fever and missed testing out of English 1 at my college by one question. I made a deal that I got an A in English 1, I could skip English 2.

It really feels like just needing to know how to write the essay the College Board wants.

That being the other problem with essay questions, of course. Sounds like you got the hang of it early--"It's America's fault" will always score well in academia; that's one of those fabled automatics, so go with that theory.
missfahrenheit From: missfahrenheit Date: January 30th, 2005 02:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Somewhere along the line I was given the impression that most of the standardised tests in America are multiple choice. For this I blame TV. Is it true though?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 30th, 2005 02:54 am (UTC) (Link)
The SATs and ACTs are multi-choice--quicker to grade, among other things. But they also aren't tests of general knowledge, but of aptitude, which includes the opportunity to know better than to check C all the way down...

Er, I mean to know how to recognize the answer that's been arrived at properly rather the ones in which common mistakes have been deliberately made.

Things like the Regents and AP exams are a mixture, with some long multichoice sections, some short answer questions, and, in English and foreign languages, writing samples. Foreign langauges, of course, have an oral section. The MCAS has multichoice interspersed with short essay type questions. There's no national standard test like the GCSE, though, so I can't even say if that's the most common form!
leapin_jot From: leapin_jot Date: January 30th, 2005 04:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Btw, thanks fernwithy for doing that little rant for me even if your opinion is completely opposite mine. It's been cool to see you get such a response. I eventually plan to do my own little rant on this subject, but I'm thinking I should wait until I'm not actually working as a teacher. ;)
From: arclevel Date: January 30th, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
My biggest (certainly not only) problem with standardized tests has absolutely nothing to do with the SATs/GREs/GMATs, etc, or with the Regents/AP tests/GCSEs. Those are tests of individuals, and the intent is to give botht the student and those who need to evaluate the student some idea of how he stacks up against the population as a whole. Fine. Necessary, to some extent. I don't think it really works like that, but it doesn't bother me much. I share some of your appreciation for finding my percentile, and I think the ones in specific subjects are particularly useful.

The problem is that what comes to mind as "standardized tests" are those like the MEAPs in Michigan; I'm not sure what they are in other states. These tests, which I recall taking in some form nearly every year starting with third grade, have absolutely nothing to do with individual students. They're about judging *schools.* More recently, especially w/the ridiculous NCLB Act, the penalties for the schools not meeting them are ridiculous -- basically, if this test identifies that your school is having trouble, we're going to take away all your money so that you have no chance of improving. The goal is to get as many students as possible to meet some minimum standard; the direct conclusion is that schools benefit most by ensuring that all of their students meet *exactly* that minimum. Beyond it, who cares? There's no more reward for having 70% of your students get every question right than there is for those students to meet whatever the minimal "pass" mark is, so why try to get them there? NCLB requires every student, including special ed and troubled students, to meet the same standard; as a result, it's in the school's best interest to encourage students with no hope of passing (and let's be honsest, there are many) to switch schools or drop out. This system directly appeals to the worst possible standards of "education" that an administration can go for -- the teachers may be wonderful, but their bosses demand they teach to the test and get that percentage of kids passing.

As noted in above comments, a lot of the tests involve more test-taking abilities than knowledge, and I assure you we were coached extensively on this. For those tests with essays (rare), one teacher told us to make sure that we said whatever was PC, no matter what we actually thought. Also, by high school, I knew kids who realized their test results had no impact on them and would cheerfully screw things up deliberately, and far more students who were completely apathetic -- they hated the school, why jump though hoops to help it? (This, btw, was at a "top" school that generally had great results.) Finally, I mentioned we took these nearly every year -- that was usually more than a week where these tests were literally the primary occupiers of our school day. Forget learning anything, we spent history class filling in circles.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 30th, 2005 07:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, if it went the other way, it would make more sense. If the tests as a diagnostic showed a clear problem with the school, then resources would be directed toward solving it.

Then again, that could lead to the school coaching the students to do [i]badly[/i].

Still things like that as a kind of measuring stick may help parents decide what neighborhood to move to when moving to a new city, or what school in a magnet or charter system they want their kids to go to.
phiremangston From: phiremangston Date: February 2nd, 2005 03:41 am (UTC) (Link)
The main reasons I love standardized tests? They get you into college automatically if you get good scores, and even though my school grades aren't all A's, I get 99th percentile on almost all standardized tests. :P
54 comments or Leave a comment