When Standardized Testing Replaces Learning
By Wendy Coykendall
Tests that don't reflect curriculum frustrate both students & teachers.
My educational background is quite unique. In elementary school, I was homeschooled by necessity, since I grew up in Africa where I learned the native language and basket weaving in addition to traditional subjects. In middle school, my family relocated to Minneapolis, where I participated in several homeschool co-ops. In high school, I took classes both via long-distance homeschool courses and at three local colleges for both high school and college credit. Though my classroom environment changed quite a bit throughout my education, I took tests just like any other student.
As a kid, I actually loved taking tests. Regardless of whether my testing circumstances were at home, conducted by proctor, or in a classroom, I gained confidence when faced with test content that was familiar. Tests were a means to review my knowledge, to confirm that I had mastered what I set out to learn.
As a teenager, my attitude towards test-taking changed.
In high school, I spent countless hours with “standardized testing.” Piles of test-prep books. Endless practice tests. Hours with a tutor. Several Saturday workshops on test-taking tips, techniques, strategies. Six–yes, that’s right, six–standardized tests in two years.
I hated it.
These tests felt completely removed from my education. I spent hours preparing for standardized tests, but the tests existed in their own dimension, one far from my classroom. I wasn’t being tested on Shakespeare or the periodic table, on the Federalist Papers, or my ability to craft an essay. Instead, I had to switch on the part of my brain that I had trained for the sole purpose of test performance.
I got good at taking standardized tests–I learned every trick in the book, every technique just to get my numbers a bit higher. But my scores felt pointless because standardized tests rewarded my mastery of test-taking skills, rather than representing my achievements in the classroom. This lopsided approach turned tests into a game to be beaten, rather than a tool for academic assessment. The Princeton Review admits as much, saying that “standardized tests are coachable exams that you can crack through practice and mastering simple strategies.”
When standardized testing becomes divorced from the content of the classroom, it’s bad for both students and teachers. This is true for both state-mandated testing and college entrance exams taken by high school upperclassmen. Students spend an increasingly large amount of time practicing test strategies–hours that would have otherwise been spent actually learning the subjects they are purportedly being tested on.
Likewise, teachers often must choose between teaching course content and preparing their students for imminent tests. Since their students’ scores will affect their performance review, their job, and often the rating of the school where they teach, teachers often are forced to “teach to the test.” In a perfect world, course curriculum and standardized tests would be perfectly aligned, and “test prep” would be simply “teaching.” But the reality is that the content of standardized tests often falls short of what high school students are expected to master; this is complicated further by inevitable (and often valuable) differences in curriculum among public schools, charter schools, private schools, and homeschools. Both students and teachers are forced to spend valuable class time preparing for standardized testing.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not advocating for a removal of standardized testing. I believe that tests are a valuable tool for students and teachers. By extension, preparing for tests is also a necessary part of a student’s academic training. At their best, standardized tests are intended to be an independent measure of proficiency based on what the average high school student learns in the course of their studies. In my experience, that wasn’t the case, and I’m not alone. What we need is for standardized testing to better align with what students should be studying and teachers should be teaching.