George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Personal Account of a Standardized Test

A Personal Account of a Standardized Test

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“From first grade through at least the beginning (and often the end) of the undergraduate years in college, standardised and short-answer tests – and the mentality that they promote – are dominant. Students are tested not on the way they use, extend, or criticize “knowledge” but on their ability to generate a superficially correct response on cue” (Wiggins, 1993, p.2). One instance of this type of testing that stands out most in my mind is when I was working for an IT training company in London, England. Part of their training program was the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) program and naturally the company wanted their trainers to be certified on the program as well. My training program involved me sitting at my desk and memorizing hundreds of multiple choice questions over several days, then being put in a small secluded room where a computer asked a selection of the questions that I’d drilled into my head. After passing the ordeal I was then thrust in front of a class to teach computer networking concepts. Did I have a clue what I was teaching? Of course not! Nowhere in my training program did I see any of the network components I was subsequently teaching and at no point did anyone discuss these concepts with me. Now this is poor teaching to an extreme level. I hope that nowhere in our schools do we give kids a binder of questions to memorize. But the overall drive behind the exercise was similar to our standardized testing: the company was not concerned with my in-depth knowledge of the material, they wanted me to get the certificate as quickly as possible and move on to the next one. (This mentality was puzzling to me as a greater in-depth knowledge surely would have made me a better trainer, nonetheless this was their approach.) “Conventional testing cannot tell us, then, what we need to know... namely, whether the student is inclined to be thoughtful and able to be effective.” (Wiggins, 1993, p.9). While teaching my courses I was frequently stumped by questions from my students. My learning came when I took those questions to my manager and he subsequently explained and demonstrated topics with me. The certificate from Microsoft that I’d earned the previous week seemed meaningless in reflecting my actual knowledge and ability to use the subject matter. I think all stakeholders in education need to be reminded of what purpose a particular test is serving. Is it to assess and develop our students’ education, or is it to quickly stamp our students with a superficial grade – for better or worse. “Because a test, by its design, is an artifice whose audience is an outsider, whose purpose is ranking, and whose methods are reductionist and insensitive” (Wiggins, 1993, p.7). Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. Jossey-Bass Inc.

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David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I have another personal account of a standardized test, actually three tests, that I had to take to become certified as a teacher in NYC.

The first was the Liberal Arts and Science test, which in my opinion, is a glorified reading test. If you can read well, you can pass that test easily, regardless of whether you have any understanding of what it to be a teacher. The "four hour exam" took me an hour to complete, and I earned a perfect score. Was this a measure of my teaching, or of my critical reasoning? I don't think so.

The second test was the content specific test for mathematics, which was essentially a measure of whether I should be capable of teaching high school level mathematics. Again, I earned a perfect score, this time in an hour and a half. Did this test measure my ability to teach this content material? Did it measure my ability to find misconceptions in student's understanding of high school mathematics? Neither.

The third test was the Secondary Assessment of Teaching Skills test, which was again a four hour exam. I had to study for this exam, since I had been told that it was not so much of a measure of my teaching ability, but a measure of how well I knew the teaching philosophy of the NY state Department of Education. I only scored 262 out of 300 on this exam. Did this test actually measure my teaching ability? Well, as a first year teacher, I can't imagine that it did, since I know for certain that I was horrible, and that my real improvement in teaching started in my 2nd and 3rd years of teaching (and still to this day, I am improving as a teacher).

All three of these tests were ridiculous as measures of what is really important; am I able to teach children effectively. The same tests (according to this page: ) seem to still be in use today, unfortunately.

Connie's picture
First grade teacher from Minnesota

I think many of us can talk about very similar experiences in high school and college. I can remember many times I studied the guides and text and memorized as much information as I could to pass test and with very good grades. I would forget everything in a couple of days and that was OK, because I passed the test. I had the same experience in my first years of teaching. I have been teaching 20 years and feel I have learned more in years 5-10 than I ever had in high school and college. I am hoping with all of the information out there about assessments and what we should be assessing, some of this will go away. But I fear there are still many teachers out there who prefer to teach to the test because it takes less time. I teach primary levels so I have never really have to assess students for grades. In the last 5 years, I have been using more and more formative assessments to guide instruction and I absolutely love what it does for my teaching and for my students. I have so much information about that indivudual student's learning and I use it to help the student move along in their learning.

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