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Are Standardized Tests Challenging Academic Rigor?

By Dr. Conrad Lotze
VP & Dean, School of Education at American Public University

This year, millions of school-aged children will spend multiple hours at school taking standardized tests. Stop and think about that for a minute. Now ask yourself some questions:

  • What are the tests designed to measure?
  • Who decides what content gets tested?
  • How much time do students and their teachers spend specifically preparing for those tests?
  • At what cost?
  • Who produced the tests?
  • Who scores the exams?
  • How are the test results then used?

Standardized tests are designed to measure student mastery of particular standards. That is, they purport to assess student mastery of a set of knowledge and skills that typically then guide the curriculum presented to students during their K-12 school years. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that states develop standardized tests, and then administer them annually.

That which is tested varies by state. Most states have designed their own sets of standards, with associated tests. For a state-by-state list of these current test versions, visit the Time 4 Learning site. The wide variety of states’ tests shows that there are many different sets of standards in use today. This lack of uniformity across states standards has prompted calls for a national curriculum, and the Common Core Standards have been developed in response. At this time, 45 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, and each is in varying stages of implementation.

Standardized tests were ostensibly designed to measure what students know about a particular curriculum. However, critics argue that the use of such tests has led to unintended consequences – including much more time being spent in class “teaching to the test,” that is, focusing exclusively on the subjects to be tested, with little room for exploration of other related topics or areas of interest. Teachers have complained about being forced to focus on teaching facts (which are easily tested) to the exclusion of other skills, like critical thinking (which is much harder to test). The result, they claim, is that students are cheated out of a chance to learn more important, in-depth, higher-ordered skills or concepts. There have been accusations of ‘dumbing down the curriculum’ caused by the emphasis now placed on testing. They have also complained of these practices limiting their academic freedom – in some states, for example, the curriculum is practically scripted out, day-by-day, with little room for teacher creativity.

Testing has also become a big business – for the companies that develop and score the tests. One recent study estimated that states now spend $1.7 billion each year on testing their students.

Additionally, many states have decided to use the results of standardized tests as part of their teacher performance evaluation process. When teacher pay and school funding are tied to student test results, it can tempt some unscrupulous teachers and/or administrators into altering test answers, as several recent high profile cheating scandals attest.

If you’d like more information about this provocative topic, a good resource you can visit for more information is ProCon.org. This site does a pretty good job of laying out the arguments on both sides of the testing debate.

About the Author:
Dr. Conrad Lotze possesses many years of educational leadership and teaching experience from a variety of academic positions. Conrad holds a BS in Mathematics from the College of William and Mary, an MA in Mathematics Education from West Virginia University, and a PhD in Mathematics Education from American University.

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