Official-looking booklets are passed out. You hurriedly fill out a scantron. Hours later, the proctor says “pencils down,” and your results are secret for months.
This is standardized testing in America.
While some argue that standardized tests are necessary to hold schools accountable for student progress, others counter that they poorly reflect students’ learning and unfairly advantage those with the most resources.
This discussion has intensified recently as debate over the equity of these assessments has grown.
I believe that while some amounts of standardized assessment are necessary in a country as vast and diverse as ours, the forms of assessment currently in place do not adequately measure student learning and ultimately cause more harm than good.
To allow assessments to serve as a better marker of student achievement, their content and usage must be reformed.
Reviewing the history of today’s standardized tests is critical to understanding their current issues.
Standardized tests were made mandatory in grades three through eight by the No Child Left Behind Act. Politicians — both Democratic and Republican — argued that these tests were a major component of closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
Today’s tests have not done so, and instead emphasize educational inequity.
Rather than measuring student aptitude or progress, they better indicate the income and education levels of a student’s family.
Instead of providing useful feedback about a student’s development, score reports present complex statistics that mean little outside the educational policy world.
Moreover, because most standardized tests are taken near the conclusion of the year, the results are received after students have left the classrooms where their performance was assessed. Thus, students are unable to receive meaningful feedback from their teachers, making the exams of little value to those who sit for them.
Using standardized test results to evaluate teacher and school performance is a dangerous endeavor, primarily because students’ scores correlate strongly with family income and education levels.
Therefore, mediocre teachers in wealthy districts are deemed better than strong teachers in poorer areas.
Additionally, instead of aiding schools that score poorly, No Child Left Behind and other similar policies have threatened schools with closure if their students do not meet state standards. These policies produce a vicious cycle of schools with the least resources and the lowest test scores — which primarily serve students of color — being closed, upending the lives of vulnerable students.
These egregious flaws of the current system cannot continue. Fortunately, students and teachers are speaking out.
In Massachusetts, they have demanded reforms, highlighting that today’s tests place massive burdens on young children and their schools while failing to accurately assess their learning.
Activists also argue that students and teachers can be assessed through portfolios and observation reports instead of sit-down tests.
Massachusetts state representatives like former teacher Jim Hawkins envision assessments that evaluate students on their learning process and long-term projects, rather than how they perform on isolated
multi-hour tests. His vision is designed to measure students’ abilities to collaborate, a critical skill needed in most industries.
However, any changes to the standardized assessment system must address the biases of standardized tests.
One major form of bias, item bias, occurs when specific questions are harder for certain test-takers due to cultural influences. Item bias nearly always disadvantages students of color, making it imperative to address in order to decrease “achievement gaps.”
Many reforms could be made to improve the equity of standardized testing.
First, these assessments should be used as a metric to aid the schools that need help, not punish them.
Furthermore, since process- and project-based assessments are unfeasible in the short term, ensuring that sample questions are available to students and teachers before exams is imperative.
Also regarding timing, standardized tests should be digitized to allow for faster scoring and held earlier in the year, perhaps as early as March, to allow students and teachers to review the results together.
Finally, diverse question-creating teams are essential to reducing the pernicious effects of item bias. All questions should be piloted and screened for racial bias before they are included on an actual exam.
If America embraces change in its systems of assessment, it can overcome the inequities that currently haunt its education system, ensuring that all of America’s children have equal chances for success.
Ari Bersch is a student at Bowdoin College, Class of 2025.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Standardized tests leave many behind and must be reformed