Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

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When it comes to standardized tests, most people are blinded by science.

 

Or at least the appearance of science.

 

Because there is little about these assessments that is scientific, factual or unbiased.

 

And that has real world implications when it comes to education policy.

 

First of all, the federal government requires that all public school children take these assessments in 3-8th grade and once in high school. Second, many states require teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores.

 

Why?

 

It seems to come down to three main reasons:

 

1) Comparability
2) Accountability
3) Objectivity

 

COMPARABILITY

 

First, there is a strong desire to compare students and student groups, one with the other.

 

We look at learning like athletics. Who has shown the most success, and thereby is better than everyone else?

 

This is true for students in a single class, students in a single grade, an entire building, a district, a state, and between nations, themselves.

 

If we keep questions and grading methods the same for every student, there is an assumption that we can demonstrate which group is best and worst.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

 

Second, we want to ensure all students are receiving the best education. So if testing can show academic success through its comparability, it can also be used as a tool to hold schools and teachers accountable. We can simply look at the scores and determine where academic deficiencies exist, diagnose them based on which questions students get incorrect and then focus there to fix the problem. And if schools and teachers can’t or won’t do that, it is their fault. Thus, the high stakes in high stakes testing.

 

Obviously there are other more direct ways to determine these facts. Historically, before standardized testing became the centerpiece of education policy, we’d look at resource allocation to determine this. Are we providing each student with what they need to learn? Do they have sound facilities, wide curriculum, tutoring, proper nutrition, etc.? Are teachers abiding by best practices in their lessons? Many would argue this was a better way of ensuring accountability, but if standardized assessments produce valid results, they are at least one possible way to ensure our responsibilities to students are being met.

 

OBJECTIVITY

 

Third, and most importantly, there is the assumption that of all the ways to measure learning, only standardized testing produces objective results. Classroom grades, student writing, even high school graduation rates are considered subjective and thereby inferior.

 

Questions and grading methods are identical for every student, and a score on the test is proof that a student is either good or bad at a certain subject. Moreover, we can use that score to keep the entire education system on track and ensure it is functioning correctly.

 

So this third reason for standardized testing is really the bedrock rationale. If testing is not objective, it doesn’t matter if it’s comparable or useful for accountability.

 

After all, we could hold kids accountable for the length of their hair, but if that isn’t an objective measure of what they’ve learned, we’re merely mandating obedience not learning.

 

The same goes for comparability. We could compare all students academic success by their ability to come up with extemporaneous rhymes. But as impressive as it is, skill at spitting out sick rhymes and matching them to dope beats isn’t an objective measure of math or reading.

 

Yet in a different culture, in a different time or place, we might pretend that it was. Imagine how test scores would change and which racial and socioeconomic groups would be privileged and which would suffer. It might – in effect – upend the current trend that prizes richer, whiter students and undervalues the poor and minorities.

 
So let’s begin with objectivity.

 

ARE STANDARDIZED TESTS OBJECTIVE?

 
There is nothing objective about standardized test scores.

 

Objective means something not influenced by personal feelings or opinions. It is a fact – a provable proposition about the world.

 

An objective test would be drawing someone’s blood and looking for levels of nutrients like iron and B vitamins.

 

These nutrients are either there or not.

 

A standardized test is not like that at all. It tries to take a series of skills in a given subject like reading and reduce them to multiple choice questions.

 

Think about how artificial standardized tests are: they’re timed, you can’t talk to others, the questions you’re allowed to ask are limited as is the use of references or learning devices, you can’t even get out of your seat and move around the room.  This is nothing like the real world – unless perhaps you’re in prison.

 

Moreover, this is also true of the questions, themselves.

 

If you’re asking something simple like the addition or subtraction of two numbers or for readers to pick out the color of a character’s shirt in a passage, you’re probably okay.

 

However, the more advanced and complex the skill being assessed, the more it has to be dumbed down so that it will be able to be answered with A, B, C or D.

 

The answer does not avoid human influences or feelings. Instead it assesses how well the test taker’s influences and feelings line up with those of the test maker.

 

If I ask you why Hamlet was so upset by the death of his father, there is no one right answer. It could be because his father was murdered, because his uncle usurped his father’s position, because he was experiencing an Oedipus complex, etc. But the test maker will pick one answer and expect test takers to pick the same one.

 

If they aren’t thinking like the test maker, they are wrong. If they are, they are right.

 

MISUNDERSTANDINGS

 
Yet we pretend this is scientific – in fact, that it’s the ONLY scientific way to measure student learning.

 

And the reason we make this leap is a misunderstanding.

 

We misconstrue our first reason for testing with our third. What we take for objectivity is actually just consistency again.

 

Since we give the same tests to every student in a given state, they show the same things about all students.

 

Unfortunately, that isn’t learning. It’s likemindedness. It’s the ability to conform to one particular way of thinking about things.

 

This is one of the main reason the poor and minorities often don’t score as highly on these assessments as middle class and wealthy white students. These groups have different frames of reference.

 

The test makers generally come from the same socioeconomic group as the highest test takers do. So it’s no wonder that children from that group tend to think in similar ways to adults in that group.

 

This isn’t because of any deficiency in the poor or minorities. It’s a difference in what they’re exposed to, how they’re enculturated, what examples they’re given, etc.

 

And it is entirely unfair to judge these children based on these factors.

 

UNDERESTIMATING HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

 

The theory of standardized testing is based on a series of faulty premises about human psychology that have been repeatedly discredited.

 

First, they were developed by eugenicists like Lewis Terman who explicitly was trying to justify a racial hierarchy. I’ve written in detail about how in the 1920s and 30s these pseudoscientists tried to rationalize the idea that white Europeans were genetically superior to other races based on test scores.

 

Second, even if we put blatant racism to one side, the theory is built on a flawed and outmoded conception of the human mind – Behaviorism. One of the pioneers of the practice was Edward Thorndike, who used experiments on rats going through mazes as the foundation of standardized testing.

 

This is all good for Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but human beings are much more complicated than that.

 

The idea goes like this – all learning is a combination of stimulus and response. Teaching and learning follow an input-output model where the student acquires information through practice and repetition.

 

This was innovative stuff when B. F. Skinner was writing in the 20th Century. But we live in the 21st.

 

We now know that there are various complex factors that come into play during learning – bio-psychological, developmental and neural processes. When these are aligned to undergo pattern recognition and information processing, people learn. When they aren’t, people don’t learn.

 

However, these factors are much too complicated to be captured in a standardized assessment.

 

As Noam Chomsky wrote in his classic article  “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” this theory fails to recognize much needed variables in development, intellectual adeptness, motivation, and skill application. It is impossible to make human behavior entirely predictable due to its inherent cognitive complexity.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

So we’re left with the continued use of widespread standardized testing attached to high stakes for students, schools and teachers.

 

And none of it has a sound rational basis.

 

It is far from objective. It is merely consistent. Therefore it is useless for accountability purposes as well.

 

Since children from different socioeconomic groups have such varying experiences, it is unfair.

 

Demanding everyone to meet the same measure is unjust if everyone isn’t given the same resources and advantages from the start. And that’s before we even recognize that what it consistently shows isn’t learning.

 

The assumption that other measures of academic success are inferior has obscured these truths. While quantifications like classroom grades are not objective either, they are better assessments than standardized tests and produce more valid results.

 

Given the complexity of the human mind, it takes something just as complex to understand it. Far from disparaging educators’ judgement of student performance, we should be encouraging it.

 

It is the student-teacher relationship which is the most scientific. Educators are embedded with their subjects, observe attempts at learning and can then use empirical data to increase academic success on a student-by-student basis as they go. The fact that these methods will not be identical for all students is not a deficiency. It is the ONLY way to meet the needs of diverse and complex humanity – not standardization.

 

Thus we see that the continued use of standardized testing is more a religion – an article of faith – than it is a science.

 

Yet this fact is repeatedly ignored by the media and public policymakers because there has grown up an entire industry around it that makes large profits from the inequality it recreates.

 

In the USA, it is the profit principle that rules all. We adjust our “science” to fit into our economic fictions just as test makers require students to adjust their answers to the way corporate cronies think.

 

In a land that truly was brave and free, we’d allow our children freedom of thought and not punish them for cogitating outside the bubbles.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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31 thoughts on “Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

  1. Tests are the currency that keep bureaucrats in business. And where is the accountability for administrators who insist on what textbooks and strategies teachers use? As far as I can see, many of those administrators are boosting their resumes and moving on to the next district in a few years.

    Like

    • Very true, Thomas. I remember reading an op-Ed by Rahm Emanuel bragging about how he brainwashed principals into a privatization mindset. Standardized tests are just another step in trying to standardize people and standardize thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Which brings up how dire an education president Obama was. He was no better than his predecessor. In fact, since the Department’s inception, there seem to have been many who looked upon public education unfavorably no matter which party was in power.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I learned and validated my distrust of standardized testing. This piece is a must read for all public school teachers and their association leaders. Steven Singer provides enough arguments and evidence to public school advocates to defend public schools from the plainly unfair and invalid standardized testing that have demoralized teachers and privatized our public school system.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Sergio. As much as I’ve studied about standardized testing, there are always more reasons that disprove the basic theory. I’ll continue to write about my discoveries in the hope that people who can actually change things are paying attention. The tide seems to be turning against school privatization. We need a similar zeitgeist against high stakes testing,

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wrote this a few years back:

    The most misleading concept/term in education is “measuring student achievement” or “measuring student learning”. The concept has been misleading educators into deluding themselves that the teaching and learning process can be analyzed/assessed using “scientific” methods which are actually pseudo-scientific at best and at worst a complete bastardization of rationo-logical thinking and language usage.

    There never has been and never will be any “measuring” of the teaching and learning process and what each individual student learns in their schooling. There is and always has been assessing, evaluating, judging of what students learn but never a true “measuring” of it.

    But, but, but, you’re trying to tell me that the supposedly august and venerable APA, AERA and/or the NCME have been wrong for more than the last 50 years, disseminating falsehoods and chimeras??
    Who are you to question the authorities in testing???

    Yes, they have been wrong and I (and many others, Wilson, Hoffman etc. . . ) question those authorities and challenge them (or any of you other advocates of the malpractices that are standards and testing) to answer to the following onto-epistemological analysis:

    The TESTS MEASURE NOTHING, quite literally when you realize what is actually happening with them. Richard Phelps, a staunch standardized test proponent (he has written at least two books defending the standardized testing malpractices) in the introduction to “Correcting Fallacies About Educational and Psychological Testing” unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag with this statement:

    “Physical tests, such as those conducted by engineers, can be standardized, of course [why of course of course], but in this volume , we focus on the measurement of latent (i.e., nonobservable) mental, and not physical, traits.” [my addition]

    Notice how he is trying to assert by proximity that educational standardized testing and the testing done by engineers are basically the same, in other words a “truly scientific endeavor”. The same by proximity is not a good rhetorical/debating technique.

    Since there is no agreement on a standard unit of learning, there is no exemplar of that standard unit and there is no measuring device calibrated against said non-existent standard unit, how is it possible to “measure the nonobservable”?

    THE TESTS MEASURE NOTHING for how is it possible to “measure” the nonobservable with a non-existing measuring device that is not calibrated against a non-existing standard unit of learning?????

    PURE LOGICAL INSANITY!

    The basic fallacy of this is the confusing and conflating metrological (metrology is the scientific study of measurement) measuring and measuring that connotes assessing, evaluating and judging. The two meanings are not the same and confusing and conflating them is a very easy way to make it appear that standards and standardized testing are “scientific endeavors”-objective and not subjective like assessing, evaluating and judging.

    That supposedly objective results are used to justify discrimination against many students for their life circumstances and inherent intellectual traits.

    C’mon test supporters, have at the analysis, poke holes in it, tell me where I’m wrong!

    I’m expecting that I’ll still be hearing the crickets and cicadas of tinnitus instead of reading any rebuttal or refutation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. Great contribution to the argument, Duane. I think I was influenced by your thinking when I wrote this. The arguments usually given against high stakes testing criticize the stakes but leave the manner of testing alone. I agree with you that the problems are much deeper. We are papering over our ignorance of human brain states when we pretend these assessments measure them. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This constant B.S. against standardized tests is tiresome. We all took standardized tests in our youth, and no one was traumatized by it. People need to stop being such whiney snowflakes about such a minor issue. Despite what so-called “experts” purport, there is no downside to standardized testing. Just for giggles, here’s a few thoughts on the article.

    Comparability is required. It can help identify deficient students, teachers or schools. If standardized testing should not be used to identify these, then what should be used in its place? It is interesting to note that those who bemoan the comparability issue always fail to offer an alternative solution.

    Accountability. Yes, teachers should be evaluated on their students’ performance. Everyone else in every other industry – such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, accountants, market researchers, and baggage handlers — is evaluated based on their performance, even if that performance is influenced by the performance of others. Why should teachers be treated any differently? And if teachers are to be treated differently, then what measurement should be used to evaluate teacher performance? To date, there does not exist a rational plan that answers this question.

    Objectivity. Sorry, but the tests are objective. Socioeconomic background does not come into play when a student is asked to read a brief passage, and then required to answer questions on it. Reading comprehension (RC) is a fundamental skill set that is required in even the most low-wage job. More importantly, RC is a requirement for citizens to become well-informed so that they can make mature choices at the voting booth. Do you really want a bunch of illiterate people at the voting booth? Isn’t that what we have now? And why would you want to make THAT situation worse?

    Finally – and most importantly – not subjecting students to the rigors of standardized testing does them a grave disservice. Post-secondary education institutions – be they prestigious universities or trade schools – will NOT give students untimed examinations, nor will they give them a free pass on examinations due to their “socioeconomic” status. U.S. students will need to compete on a global scale, and students from many other countries can well handle the “stress” of a standardized test. Should we let delusional snowflakes cripple the ability of our students to compete internationally? Who in the hell would think THAT would be a good idea?

    Grow up. Stop whining. And just let your kids take the damn tests. After all, is standardized testing really that big of a deal?

    Like

    • Hold onto your hats, folks. Erwin, here has gone full “Back in my day” on the issue. I hate to break it to you, Erwin,but there are plenty of things we did in the past that aren’t acceptable anymore. We used to treat coughs and headaches with cocaine and mothers routinely smoked while pregnant. Now we’re all just “snowflakes” because no one does that anymore!? Yikes!

      Moreover, standardized testing today is nothing like what it used to be. I’m in my 40s and I remember taking these kinds of tests in school. But they were very infrequent. They didn’t dominate the curriculum and my teachers never had to teach to the test. In addition, the results hardly mattered. Other than the SAT, I don’t remember ever stressing over these tests and what impact the results would have for me. Today kids, teachers and schools live and die by the scores.

      By the way, speaking of reading comprehension, you may want to brush up on it, because I DID say what we should be doing instead of standardized tests. We should use more authentic assessments like classroom grades. You know – the teacher provides lessons, classwork and her own tests and quizzes over 180 days and that becomes the basis for measuring whether learning took place. Judge teachers by what they actually do in the classroom and hold lawmakers accountable for not providing the proper resources for all students.

      You have a warped view of accountability. Have you ever gotten a cavity? Did your dentist give you the money back for your last visit? Lawyers are all free unless they win your case, huh? Your accountant loses her certification if one of her clients goes broke? I don’t think so. But that’s what you’re suggesting for teachers.

      But here’s my favorite – kids have to learn how to deal with standardized test sometime. Wrong. We shouldn’t make children acclimatize to injustice. Should those kids in Flint, Michigan, just shrug it off and get used to the lead in the water?

      Erwin, grow up. Turn off the Fox News. There’s a whole world out there that the grown ups are enjoying. Why not join us?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Methinks that ol Erwin doesn’t know how to spell his last name.

        Why should we give the time of day to someone who doesn’t have the cojones to use his/her real name and who probably spends his/her time petting her/his cat?

        Liked by 1 person

    • “Grow up. Stop whining?” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

      As one whose scores on various standardized tests over the years did not fall below the 88th percentile (and only one time below the 90th percentile) I’d say that my analysis of the fallacies of standardized testing, and the one above is just one of many of the arguments against the standards and testing educational malpractices, is definitely not “whining”. It is a rationo-logical takedown of those malpractices that, along with Noel Wilson’s work (whom I base much of my analysis on) has never been refuted or rebutted.

      “It is interesting to note that those who bemoan the comparability issue always fail to offer an alternative solution.” Who died went to heaven and declared from on high that “Comparability is required”? How did the USofA become the supposed top dog nation of the world way back in the 20th century without standardized testing and the comparing of students, teachers and schools? Do you not know any history of schooling? Don’t get me wrong, businessmen have attempted many times to compare said things and they have always failed. For a starter may I recommend that read Callahan’s early 60s classic “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” to learn more about the absurdity and futility of those attempts.

      Do you, Erwin, have the mental cojones to take on my arguments? Come on have at it. Take apart what I said in my response. Bring it on. I’m ready, finally after twenty years of searching for a rebuttal, to hear one, that is, if you have one. And not just something like “Objectivity. Sorry, but the tests are objective.” Prove how they are supposedly objective. Explain it, lay it out there for the world to see. Bring it on! I suspect though that I’ll not see a response. Prove my suspicion wrong. I await!

      p.s. So that you know I’m a retired public high school Spanish teacher (starting at age 39) who has a MA in Ed Admin and was certified to be an adminimal. I chose to stay in the classroom and do the real work of schools–teaching. I have worked the business world in customer service management, materials management/production scheduling and pharmaceutical purchasing and inventory control, and am a master upholsterer. I come at the standards and testing malpractice regime from knowing that without adequate and valid data, any decisions made from said data with be inadequate and invalid.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The obsessive focus on measuring academic “achievement” by mass administered standardized tests such as the PARCC is counter-productive on many levels. Though the Common Core standards and curricula that are aligned with them claim to foster critical thinking, the type of linguistic and neuro-cognitive processing that is required for performing well on this type of assessment (multiple-choice mind) is a caricature of critical thinking, and ignores the valuable human proficiencies of perceptiveness in human interaction, aesthetic sensibility, compassion, empathy, and authentic voice. Students who excel at these types of tests consider themselves a cut above, while those that struggle consider themselves stupid. Aside from being tragic for the students and their families, this is an unconscionable discarding of human potential that our divided and compromised world desperately needs. The cost in mental/emotional health from this cognitive image ideal is immeasurable. The shame of this is that the profit to the large corporations benefiting from this deceitful mindset is exponential. This must stop!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You said that teachers should be evaluated based, in part, on if they use best practices. How do you determine which practices are best and which are not?

    I would think the best practices are the ones that facilitate learning the most. This, of course, assumes that we can tell which practice does facilitate learning the most. Would you agree?

    Like

    • Teachingeconomist, I fear I’m going to regret commenting on your response because you love to troll this space. But I suppose I’ll indulge you again. Just be aware that I have no intention of getting in the long debate you want to have where you think you’re Socrates and you “get me” on a logical inconsistency that really only amounts to the straw man argument you will pretend I’m putting forward here. Sigh. We know what best practices are. There may be some disagreement but these are things like providing proper scaffolding, good communication, clear expectations, providing all materials necessary to complete assignments, offering encouragement and feedback. And you’ll say – but, Steve, how do we know these are best practices without standardized testing the only fair way to assess learning? And I’ll slap myself in the face because you just want to reprosecute the entire article I just wrote. To save myself the trouble, let me just re-emphasize that teachers have a long history of observing their students and judging whether learning has taken place. That has lead to best practices. It’s not standardized and it is somewhat subjective. But when dealing with human beings we can’t and shouldn’t be inflexible robots.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “It’s not standardized and it is somewhat subjective.”

        It’s not just “somewhat subjective”, it is completely subjective. Tis the nature of the beast. . . and there is nothing wrong with those evaluations being subjective considering that they cannot be anything but subjective. The vaunted objectivity that test jocks, oops I mean supporters, so glorify doesn’t exist.

        Liked by 1 person

    • “. . . assumes that we can tell which practice does facilitate learning the most.”

      You know about that assume, eh, TE?

      There is no one practice that “facilitates learning the most” for all students. What works with/for some students will not work with/for other students. Any teacher worth their salt knows this and understands the implications for the teaching and learning process, mainly by using a lot of different techniques with/in their classes so that ALL students have a better, not best as that is not possible to discern, opportunity to learn. To the untrained eye those various techniques may seem to be discordant at times, but they are not.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Duane,

        It is the gadfly who used the phrase “best practices”. I merely asked how we know which practices are best. It appears your argument is with him, not me.

        Like

  7. Let’s get the standardized piece down to its most micro level. We give the same test to everyone, but we do not give the same resources to everyone. My son is at the highest ranked high school in Louisiana. He is three years ahead in math. He takes the same Algebra 2 LEAP 2025 (formerly EOC) that the students in the high school where I teach who had nine weeks with no teacher in Algebra 2, a teacher who came in the first week of the second quarter and then left at Christmas, and finally a pretty damn good teacher who stayed throughout the second semester. How and in what universe is my son and the students in the high school where I teach in a standard situation that should be evaluated with the same test? There is no standardization from school to school, and it damn sure isn’t the fault of the teachers or the students. Were the kids with no teacher supposed to learn algebra on their own? What can we possibly learn about what they know or their capabilities by comparing them to my son or to any other student who had a teacher the whole year in Algebra 2?

    So yes to all of the above in the article. Standardized testing is a fools’ game. Any decent teacher can tell you the five words we get from our DRC-made tests in Louisiana that have five designation and no break down of skills or even right or wrong answers. Teachers can’t see the test, have no idea what is being asked, and don’t know what their kids did well on or got wrong. They get (whatever the words are now, they’re always changing but basically its breaks down to) five words: unsatisfactory, approaching basic, basic, mastery and advanced. Most good teachers know what their students are going to make before they take the test. So we spend $75 million for the DRC tests alone in Louisiana and we get five words we could come up with on our own.

    Who benefits? DRC, Pearsons, McGraw Hill and all the spin doctors. Corporate welfare at its finest. The big corporations get all the money, and the kids get to feel like shit over circumstance far beyond their control. Schools chase their tails trying to find a magic formula to beat the tests, and nobody really learns anything at all of substance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “They get (whatever the words are now, they’re always changing but basically its breaks down to) five words: unsatisfactory, approaching basic, basic, mastery and advanced.”

      Hmmm. . . U, AB, B, M, A = F, D, C, B, A. Hell, I’m not a mathematician yet even I can figure that one out. Amazing how the more things change the more they stay the same, eh!

      Spot on commentary-especially your last paragraph, AMC, thanks!

      Like

  8. Reblogged this on "…but I'm not the only one…" and commented:
    If you teach a kid, birthed a kid, are a kid, used to be a kid, or are planning to rely on today’s kids to whip this planet and its inhabitants back into shape, please read every word of this. And then tell everyone you know to read every word of this. Thank you, Steven Singer.

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  9. […] We could be working together to try to solve this and other social issues. We could pool resources and construct social programs to help parents get jobs, set up stable homes, fund robust systems of public transportation, and a host of social services for students and their families such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and continuing education classes. We could end discriminatory policies such as school segregation, school privatization and high stakes standardized testing. […]

    Like

  10. […] Knowledge, skills and human cognition are far too complex a web to ever hope to be captured by such …. But by insisting that we make this complexity fit into such a small box, we end up depriving people of the right to move on. We say predictive models show they aren’t ready to move forward and so we bury them in remediation. Or we deny them access to important opportunities like advanced classes, electives, field trips, extracurricular clubs or even post-secondary education. […]

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