Standardized Testing is Not the Devil…

by Robert Pondiscio
March 22nd, 2011

…Test prep is the devil. 

Via Alexander Russo comes word of a “misguided war” against standardized testing, and a backlash against the backlash. “Standardized testing is rarely fun — and it could almost certainly be improved — but it’s not nearly as antithetical to real, deep learning as its detractors suggest,” writes Anna North at the blog Jezebel, who scoffs at well-off parents refusing to let their kids sit for tests. Such protests

“…. run the risk of deepening the divide between haves and have-nots that continues to plague public education — and pretty much every other aspect of society. Any attempt to scuttle standardized testing needs to acknowledge that even if the tests are problematic, the deficits they attempt to address are real — and any alternative approach needs to face these deficits, not just walk away from them.”

North slightly misdiagnoses the issue.  Personally, I have no problem with tests, per se.  But you’d have to be naive to dismiss the impact preparing for those tests have had on the children North and everyone else purports to care so deeply about.  Talk to someone who has taught in a low-performing school and you’ll almost certainly hear stories about prodigious amounts of time sacrificed on the altar of practice tests and language arts lessons in “test sophistication.”  At my South Bronx elementary school, we had a Teachers College consultant who encouraged us to ”teach tests as a genre of literature.”  But even that pales in comparison to a grad student of mine who was mandated to spend two hours per day on test prep from the first day of school.  

Testing and accountability are unlikely to disappear.  Boycott the test?  Perhaps, but if I were a parent activist, I would march into the school office the first day of school with the following bargain:  “I’m sure you agree the best test prep is great teaching and a robust curriculum, Ms. Principal.  So let’s keep our focus right there.  Don’t worry about spending my child’s time and your budget dollars on test prep materials.  Because if they show up in our kids classrooms, we can promise our kids won’t be showing up for the test.”


  1. I like that bargain…

    Comment by Rachel — March 22, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  2. The biggest problem I have with standardized testing is forcing all students to take the same grade-level test. I got much more useful information about my DD’s relative strengths and weaknesses from the EXPLORE test she took in January (which is designed for 8th graders) than I’m going to get from the results of the 3rd grade California STAR test she has to take next month. Why can’t the virtual charter school in which she is enrolled be allowed to substitute her EXPLORE results for the STAR? Why are we wasting her time and taxpayer money giving her a too-easy standardized test?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 22, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  3. [...] testing is not the devil,” writes Robert Pondiscio. “Test prep is the devil.” Time-wasting test prep is most likely to be a problem at high-poverty, low-performing schools, he [...]

    Pingback by Lashing the anti-testing backlash — Joanne Jacobs — March 23, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  4. Great Bargain

    Comment by john thompson — March 23, 2011 @ 10:38 am

  5. Giving level-appropriate tests to the top students would exaggerate the achievement gap. NCLB= let no child get ahead.

    Comment by anonymous — March 23, 2011 @ 11:12 am

  6. Isn’t it about time somebody discusses the cost-benefit of different assessments? Standardized tests are immensely expensive for marginally useful data, often returned after delays that reduce the value of any information to trivia. Certainly they were invented to capitalize on the technology of the time – actually World War I, when the first bubble tests were used to screen recruits and were eyeballed. Later, with machines, they remained marginally cost-effective through the 1950′s and part of the 1960′s. Yet it took decades longer to update their efficiency even to adaptive bubbles, and they are still immensely expensive for any more substantive scoring.

    Meanwhile, other technology – computers, online and word processed text, video, sound, and graphics – can collect much more information on how and what the learner learns, and deliver it to both learners and teachers much more economically. Nothing wrong with standards, with core, and with content, but there’s plenty wrong with the corporate greed that makes their harvest as pitiful as a two or three digit score months after the fact.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — March 23, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

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    Pingback by Standardized Testing is Not the Devil… « The Core Knowledge Blog « Jennifer Schorr's Blog — March 23, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  8. Actually, standardized testing is pretty cheap. Most of the time they cost less than $10 a student (at least the state ones do). Also, the idea that the informational is marginally useful– well, I guess that depends on your state’s test. I find that the NECAP exam given in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island actually supplies very useful information as a starting point. They don’t simply pump out a two digit score for each student– if you don’t get question level responses for your students on released items and strand data then I’d ask for it because it’s out there for virtually all of these tests.

    Anyway, from what I read the next round of assessments will provide even more useful information with faster turnaround.

    By the way, the new tech basically is identical to the bubble tests of the past. The big innovation is being able to dynamically select questions based on a student’s performance to more accurately to determine the student’s achievement and their strengths and weaknesses. Computer adaptive testing is where both PARCC and SMARTER Balance are going, so it’s coming.

    Comment by Jason — March 23, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  9. Primary and intermediate grade standardized tests that measure reading comprehension, basic math skills and maybe grammar have some value and would be more valuable if they were adaptive so that the student’s responses on a set of questions determined the level of the next set of questions. Teachers, administrators and parents should be most interested in how far their student has grown over the course of the year rather than where their child ranks compared to others although %tile rankings have some value and should not be excluded. Subject matter tests are worthless because unless the teacher covers material aligned with the test. There are many wonderful things to teach in social studies and science and teachers are the best gate keepers for what is taught and measured in these subjects. When teachers are threatened with punitive measures if their students score low the curriculum is always dumbed down to the bare bones of what is one the test.

    Comment by Carolyn Wilson Koerschen — March 23, 2011 @ 11:57 pm

  10. [...] worry about spending my child’s time and your budget dollars on test prep materials.”(more)    Comments (0) Go to main news [...]

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  11. One of the biggest problems with standardized tests is that the majority of them are founded on the mistaken idea that content does not matter and that generalized skills are what needed to be tested. If the tests included specific content, then “test prep” would be consistent with a high quality education. But given that teachers really have no idea what will be on the test, they try and teach generalized test taking skills (test prep), which is not consistent with a high quality education.

    The AP tests (for the most part) get this right. Delineate the content and domain specific skills in a very specific syllabus. And align the tests to that syllabus. Teachers, students, (and parents) then all know what they are supposed to be teaching/learning. And the classroom instruction is clear and consistent with the syllabus.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 24, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  12. Also, the idea that the informational is marginally useful– well, I guess that depends on your state’s test.

    Do any states allow above-grade level testing? That’s the only way to get useful information for bright students.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 24, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

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