George Lucas Educational Foundation

Beyond the Standardized Test: Aim Higher

May 20, 2014 Updated April 15, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

Standardized testing is one of the "lighting rod" issues in educational policy debates. Whether it's a group of teachers boycotting a test in Seattle, districts across the United States tying teacher evaluations to test results, the new PARCC or Smarter Balanced Assessments being implemented, the ranking countries with PISA scores, or the SAT trying to revamp itself, the debate and topic of standardized testing simply will not go away. So what is an educator to do? With all these forces in play, whether at the district or federal level, it can be disheartening and daunting for an educator to create learning in the classroom. With all the changes, there is always pressure to teach to the test. But I think we can do better.

Encourage Higher Order Thinking

Standardized tests hit a huge range of depth of knowledge or cognitive levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Often a prompt may just be focusing on recall or comprehension, or inference at best. There might be some more critical thinking prompts, but those won't necessarily dominate the standardized assessment. I believe that we, as educators, should be aiming higher, beyond what a test demands. When we aim higher, we are preparing our students for more than a test -- we're preparing them for 21st century skills paired with content.

To do this, educators need to make sure that the assessments and projects they assign their students are rigorous and focused on depth of knowledge and/or higher levels of Bloom's. To get there, students will indeed have to do the lower levels of thinking, but we can't just stop there. Instead, the lower level thinking should serve as scaffolding for higher order thinking. Let's aim higher than what a standardized test might ask of our students, ensuring that they're not only ready for the test, but more than ready for college, career and life!

Embed "Test Prep"

Instead of wasting everyone's time prepping for the exam right before it happens, embed test prep into your daily instruction. Try to make it a meaningful assessment tool while still practicing for the test. For example, you can look at the standardized test to find the stems. Steal these stems and use them to create formative and/or summative assessments for a more engaging project or unit. These might be short-answer or multiple-choice questions, or longer essay-like questions. As a teacher, these small, low-stakes, test-like questions can help you effectively check for understanding. They also help your students become familiar with how the standardized test will look and what it will feel like. Don't forget to be transparent -- show your students how this will be like the standardized test, but also explain why you are using these questions in your instruction.

Error Analysis for Reflective Instruction

Error analysis is an excellent and intentional way to look at the student performance data for patterns and trends, and then use this data to prepare for instruction in an upcoming unit, whether that is a unit next year or next week. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, two of my favorite education authors, articulate the process in "Making Time for Feedback," an article that appeared in Educational Leadership.

So how does this fit in with standardized tests? Standardized test items should be aligned to a standard, which means the data is disaggregated into these different performance areas. Once students have taken the standardized test, the data is given back to the teacher, and the teacher should be looking at it to make informed decisions on instruction. In this case, it is often for the next year, but the data might also inform remedial instruction. Regardless, teachers can aim beyond the standardized test as just a summative assessment, and instead use it as a tool to reflect upon instruction and meet the needs of individual students.

Instead of just viewing standardized testing as "scary beast," we can do our best not only to make it useful through error analysis, but also to prepare students for it in meaningful ways and with instruction that's better than just test prep. We don't need to be focusing on test prep -- we need to be focusing on our students and effective instruction!

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  • Formative Assessment
  • Teaching Strategies

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