Yours HumanlyNovember 26, 2019
Are Standardized Tests a Thing of the Past
Those of us who have been through (or are currently in) the school system have experienced staying up late and flipping through flashcards in preparation for an upcoming exam. Although exams and standardized tests may not have been our favorite part about attending school, we recognized their importance in providing a benchmark for our progress. Tests, it seems, have always been a part of the school experience that students in most countries are familiar with. Recently, however, an increasing number of schools have been embracing the idea of eliminating tests and class rankings in favor of a more qualitative approach towards measuring student success.
For those who associate schools and tests, it may be surprising to know that eliminating testing is not just a trend being tried by only the trendiest of schools. In fact, according to an article published by The Washington Post, around 40 percent of accredited colleges and universities have waived the ACT or SAT as a requirement for admission. The decision to omit previously mandatory scores was made in an attempt to increase diversity in higher education and allow students from all backgrounds to attend college. Studies have shown that standardized tests favor those who come from privileged families. In fact, the Washington Post article goes on to cite research done by an organization called FairTest. FairTest “just analyzed SAT scores for the high school class of 2019. It reported that the gaps between demographic groups grew larger from a year earlier, with the average scores of students from historically disenfranchised groups falling further behind students from more privileged families.” By eliminating the need for standardized test scores, colleges are aiming to eliminate the advantage gained through social or economic standing.
Decreasing demographic gaps is not the only reason schools are opting out of traditional testing methods. The country of Singapore has decided to abolish school exam rankings. This choice was made, according to the Ministry of Education, “to allow each student to focus on his or her learning progress and discourage them from being overly concerned about comparisons.” Students sharing scores can naturally lead to competition amongst classmates. And, although competition can sometimes be beneficial, Ong Ye Kung (the Education Minister for Singapore) explains that “‘coming in first or second’, in class or level, has traditionally been a proud recognition of a student’s achievement. But removing these indicators is for a good reason, so that the child understands from young that learning is not a competition, but a self-discipline they need to master for life.” Through the removal of school exam rankings, Singapore schools hope to teach their students that school is not about being the best test taker, but about expanding student’s knowledge, instilling in them a love of learning, and preparing them for life after they exit the school system.
It may be difficult to imagine exactly how student performance will be measured if tests, and the rankings they provide, are phased out. In Singapore, The Ministry of Education explains that “teachers will continue to gather information about pupils’ learning through discussions, homework and quizzes. Schools will use other ways like “qualitative descriptors”, in place of marks and grades, to evaluate pupils’ progress.” In the U.S., Howard County public schools have also made the decision to eliminate class rankings and revise their grading systems. Instead of the traditional test-based reporting, Howard County public schools will use standards-based reporting. Standards-based reporting breaks down the subjects of each grade-level into standards that those students are expected to understand and focuses on teaching children to master those standards. John Sangiovanni, the elementary mathematics coordinator for the school system, elaborates on how standards-based reporting will work by describing that “in the past while a student may have received a B in a math class, which is considered above passing, the breakdown of the grade would not reflect gaps in certain areas, meaning the student may have been excelling with division and multiplication, but was struggling with fractions.” By applying qualitative evaluation methods, schools are attempting to offer a more in-depth and well-rounded view of each student and their performance.
While removing standardized tests and rankings may provide some benefits, such as the possibility of removing competitive motive, or providing an in-depth view of student performance, there is no certainty that this new approach to evaluation will work for every student or even every school. In her article, Academic Ranking May Motivate Some Students, Alienate Others, Jennifer Robinson explains that “academic motivation is complex and individual. Identifying each learner’s unique, intrinsic strengths and building on them more effectively encourages academic success and, perhaps more importantly, engagement.” For some students, a high ranking might be the motivation needed to stay up for that extra hour and study to ensure success. While, for other students, rankings could be the cause of stressful sleepless nights.
Motivation might not be the only benefit that is lost by removing reliance on standardized tests and rankings. Although studies have shown that standardized tests favor privileged students, Kevin Dickenson’s article, Standardized Tests: Finland’s Education System Vs. The U.S., recognizes that “alternative methods of assessment are bias [i.e., compared to tests]…They are systematically bias against some of the most disadvantaged peoples in our society, and they also systematically reinforce common stereotypes.” The article goes on to explain “that teacher assessments are rife with implicit biases, pointing to studies that show teacher assessments reinforce common stereotypes that can be weeded out through standardized tests.” Finland, a country that performs academically better overall than the U.S., still faces some issues when it comes to student performance evaluation. Dickenson’s article cites a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study which finds that “Finland’s reliance on teacher assessments could be harming particular groups within its student body. While the country performs well academically, its equity rating lags. In 2015, the country scored below the OECD average for equity among boys and girls, as well as for immigrant students. The United States, on the other hand, performed around the average for equity among boys and girls, and better than the average for immigrant students.” No program is perfect. And, although one model works well for a certain country, it may fail in another. Each country, each school, and each student is different. Therefore, it is important to focus on finding a method that fits the user.
Changes to traditional education methods are a result of teachers and schools taking a look at their current systems and attempting to improve upon them for the benefit of the students. While we cannot say which methods work best, Yours Humanly does support the idea of placing student success first. Whether a school prioritizes or eliminates standardized tests and class rankings, it is important that they work to improve the experience of all of their students, regardless of economic or social class. Because, although the school experience may change, the impact of a great education will always remain vitally important.