Standardized tests are fundamentally bad

In the May 7 edition of the Press-Republican there appears a Newsday editorial, part of a summary of views from around the state, concerning the need for standardized testing. Their viewpoint is that “testing kids has merit,” and their perceived importance of standardized testing is being eroded during this pandemic, perhaps never to recover once the virus is defeated.

They claim “properly designed and administered [standardized] tests can tell us what students have mastered and where they need work.” They claim “poorly designed tests, over-testing, teaching to the test and turning education into rote memorization are legitimately troublesome. They waste class time, stymie excitement and don’t teach students what they need to know.”

What is more troublesome is their failure to recognize that the above listing of problems likely results from standardized testing, and incredibly, those are not the only failures. Here are a few to contemplate:

1. Standardized tests by definition are a one-size-fits-all instrument featuring one correct answer for every question. Hypotheses entertained by individuals are disallowed.

2. Standardized tests ignore developmental and experiential differences among individuals. Especially relevant are differences in the ability to engage in logical or reasoned thinking.

Research shows there may be three different levels of capability for logical thinking at most grade levels. Most students at early grades are at a pre-logical level, wherein they are not encumbered by logical reasoning and facts. They say whatever comes to mind at the time. Some are at a level of beginning logic, but only in regard to direct or concrete experiences. A few may think logically about abstract and hypothetical matters if they are perceived as connected to prior concrete experiences.

The language of standardized tests is abstract and hypothetical, not fully comprehended by most students at earlier levels of development. For instance, the majority of third-graders are pre-logical (pre-operational — Piaget) and engage in guessing as their response to hypothetical test items. Many others at higher grades are faced with the same problem.

Those at a concrete level of reasoning will think logically about direct or concrete experiences, but without those experiences will not begin to fully comprehend the meaning of abstract and hypothetical language. Those who have reached the level of formal logic can deal logically with abstract language but may choose not to do so. Which of these students will pass the test? How much guessing is required?

3. The essential focus of standardized tests is to measure knowledge of what has been remembered from classroom instruction. The test results do not differentiate between those who may be considered competent and those who have remembered well enough to pass the test.

4. Standardized tests do not measure higher-order thinking that involves the individual in the analysis, synthesis and critical/creative evaluation of problems. Check out Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, cognitive domain. Standardized tests focus on the lowest levels of cognition, simple knowledge of something as defined in the taxonomy.

5. Standardized tests are based on a behaviorist view of learning that focuses on the lower levels of cognition. Legitimate and verified models of learning are ignored, such as this one attributed to Robert Gagne.

His research showed learning ideally begins with direct and purposeful experiences that are associated with past experiences that are automatically responded to physically and verbally. The next level of learning is defined as multiple discrimination which is achieved from having a variety of experiences, many initiated by the individual.

This discrimination process occurs within the mind of the individual; it results in concept formation. Concepts are mental images condensed from those experiences.

Concepts are applied in the interpretation of events, etc., and when the learner finds them to be valid and predictable, they form rules that become principles and eventually laws that make effective problem solving possible. No standardized test measures the levels of learning above the automatic levels found in this learning model.

If the tests were to allow the individual to engage in independent reasoning, the answers would be unpredictable, violating the rule of one correct answer for every question. This would change current statistical analysis and destroy the myth that learning is reflected in the scores achieved on the tests.

6. Along with many daily instances of developmentally inappropriate instruction, standardized tests take first prize. Developmentally inappropriate experiences are those that do not correspond to the capabilities of logic found at each developmental level. A steady diet of the inappropriate experience of standardized tests often results in challenged mental health, overly aggressive behavior and undeveloped potentialities.

7. For these and other reasons, standardized tests do not have reasonable/logical merit and should be discarded and replaced with assessment and evaluation processes based on modern general systems theory — to wit, systems design as a constructive learning process and systems analysis as a strategy for assessment and evaluation of authentic learning outcomes.

Such a system based on developmental theories is field tested and available, yet ignored by the advocates of behaviorist theory and supported by the Business Roundtable for its lucrative potential.

Perhaps there is need for widespread adult education in this matter. What do you think?

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.


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