As A Teacher, I Want People To Know These 5 Myths About Standardized Testing

by Margherita Gilley
Originally Published: 
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As a mother of three sons who attended public school and were tested to the point of nuclear boredom, I learned to cope. I was part of the problem, since I dutifully administered the tests as an English teacher at a suburban high school. What did I do with my sons’ test results? Basically, I glanced at the scores and simply shrugged.

Yup, pretty much that was it. Why? I realized that the tests were not about my kids at all. One year, one of my sons ranked in the 97% percentile for reading comprehension. I knew better than to post this dubious merit on Facebook. Nope, I just filed it away until the next year when he scored in the 40% percentile. Alarmed, I met with his counselor and we confirmed that testing doesn’t tell the whole story. Crisis averted, I filed this one away too. The letter carrier kept depositing data and I kept filing it away.

For those of you obsessing about standardized testing, please stop torturing yourselves. The tests are not about your kids, no matter how many times you hear the same tired rationalizations. If you want to know how your child is doing, talk to their teachers, friends, coaches and whoever else is actually interacting with your child. You will be better informed. As a teacher, I thought there was some value to standardized testing, but when I became the recipient of data on my own kids, I had to re-assess.

These are the myths that I began to challenge as both an educator and a mom. What does testing actually do?

1. Provides valuable information.

While testing does generate lots of data, most of it is worthless. It does not account for the fact that kids are by nature temperamental, and often unpredictable in their ability to pay attention and perform on cue. They are not trained seals that jump for a treat whenever we decide. So, the value in the numbers is only evident over time. Compare scores from year to year and meet with your child’s guidance counselor to ascertain the purpose and scope of the exam. Make your own decision about the “value” of the scores when you find out about the exam and its value. Don’t assume that it is a fair, well-developed test.

2. Drives curriculum.

Curriculum development moves slowly and your individual child’s progress on a test is probably not going to move the needle one way or another. Often test scores are used to justify the move to another educational model, sometimes a model that was already in the works. The numbers are used to bolster the argument for new purchases, new standards — sometimes for the purpose of novelty. Optimistically, I would say that some teachers peruse the scores for hours to re-frame the curriculum and address student deficiencies. Most likely, not the case. And even if it were to happen, your child’s individual score isn’t all that important here either.

3. Compares academic progress between districts.

Yes, but, how much of your child’s education should be spent looking over the fence to see how kids in the neighboring school are doing? How useful is it to know that kids in a neighboring school district boasting a lower poverty rate, lower absenteeism, and more college-educated residents per capita, are doing better than the kids in your child’s district? Do we really need to test your child for hours to establish that there are inequities among communities?

4. Helps your child prepare for the future.

Sure, if your child is going to be a professional test-taker, this is true. There are tests for civil service, college entrance, law school, medical school, and so on. The results are clearly defined: you score high enough and you get the civil service job or you get into the program. Done. What does your child get from sitting through hours of skills-based, repetitive, mind-numbing, oval-filling tests?

5. Identifies students who need remediation.

Tests are given in the spring and results are seldom provided until the following fall. By the time your child’s results are analyzed, your child may have already formed friendships, established a rapport with his or her teachers, only to be moved to another classroom because of a dubious deficiency. Is your child in need of remediation in reading or did he just fail the test because he was bored with the task? Does he or she have the maturity to soldier on despite the myriad situations that tug at the heart and mind of a child?

This testing season, beware. Talk to your child, compare results over time, meet with the school guidance counselor to make sure you have a clear picture of what is really going on with the test. Numbers are markers that don’t have to determine your child’s future.

As a young mother, my pediatrician showed me a chart of where my boys were in comparison to other boys. I worried lots, especially if they were at the lower end of the spectrum. After many visits, I learned to relax and pay attention to markers only when the doctor was really concerned — the rest were filed, never to be referenced again. You may want to start your own file.

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