Reforming Standardized Testing
The majority of my academic career has been spent preparing for standardized tests. Tests that, while at the time seemed unimportant and a waste of my time actually ended up shaping my future in academics. In third grade, my Virginia SOLs determined whether I was eligible for visions classes, which is the elementary equivalent of AP classes. In fifth grade, a different set of tests determined whether I was put in advanced classes in middle school and if I got to skip a math. In high school, I had to pass a certain amount of SOLs in order to graduate, but more importantly, I had to take the PSAT, SAT, and ACT, which overall determined where I am now. Throughout my years of taking these tests, I felt ill-prepared and felt it all was unnecessary. Although the majority of my classroom time was spent preparing for these tests, I failed to understand the point of me taking them. Because of this, the making and conducting of standardized tests should be reformed.
Standardized testing constantly affects students every day regardless of their grade level. Because of the No Child Left Behind Act signed by George W. Bush in 2002, all states are required to test all students in third through eighth grade in reading and math (Klein). This Act was signed to make sure that students, especially those in poorer school systems, are learning. While this concept is admirable and sounds great on paper, the effects were the opposite. Many states failed to meet the quota of students passing the tests and the overall learning environment was greatly affected in a negative way (Klein). Because of the emphasis on math and reading schools now tend to focus more on those two subjects than other subjects such as science, history, and the arts. Tim walker found that, “In a 2011 national survey, two-thirds of teachers said many academic subjects had been crowded out by an increased focus on math and language arts. About half said art and music were being marginalized, while 40 percent said the same for foreign languages; 36 percent for social studies; and 27 percent for science. The results were particularly striking at the elementary level, where 81 percent of teachers reported that extra time devoted to math or language arts meant less time for other subjects,” (Walker). Some students simply are not as good at math and English than they are in other subjects, but because of the emphasis on them, they are regarded as not as smart when in reality they just are not being tested on what they are good at. This does not only affect the students either, teachers have to teach by the book. At my elementary, middle, and high schools, my teachers were given a book that had everything that we were supposed to be tested on, and from that, the teachers met and made lesson plans together. There was no room for teachers to be creative and plan their own lesson plans, because if their students did poorly on the test, then it was a reflection of the teacher’s teaching.
Another issue that arises with standardized testing at the elementary, middle, and high school level is that the testing environment is stressful and scary. Children are not allowed to receive help on any of the questions and they are not allowed to talk or really take breaks because these tests are timed (Mulholland). As a result, students who need to talk through problems are punished, as well as those who are slower test takers than their peers. It seems more like they’re being interrogated than being tested on their abilities. High schoolers and perhaps middle schools are able to sit still, but forcing a third or fourth grader to sit and take a multiple choice test that takes hours to complete is torture. Then, teachers, whose jobs are to help and nurture young minds can only sit back and watch their students suffer, which completely undermines their job descriptions. One teacher describes one of her student’s helplessness as, “She had a complete meltdown, and I could do nothing to help her, I couldn’t help her with the test. I could just let her take a little break then, but then she was going to run out of time, and she was watching the clock, she knew,” (Mulholland). Other teachers have reported their students describing these tests as describing their fate, which in a way is somewhat true, but no ten-year-old should be put under that pressure, they are just kids (Mulholland).
Therefore, some changes need to be made in terms of testing young children. For starters, the way these students should be tested should be changed. Some students are better at multiple, some better in interactive ways, some better at writing. With regards to this idea, perhaps multiple assessments should be conducted, or a test should have several different elements where if one child fails to do well on the multiple choice section, but they do much better in the short answer section, then this would reflect in the test results and show that they just think through problems differently. They could also be tested in the form of projects, games, or reports because these do not just test a student’s ability, but also how they work to achieve the answer. It gives students the ability to show their strengths, where regular standardized tests fail to see these abilities. Also, students would be able to test more on subjects that they are good at. For example, if a student did a report on the Revolutionary War, the paper itself would test their English skills as well, and if they incorporated what percentage of colonists were soldiers, then that would test their math capabilities. The New York Performance Standards Consortium is a group of twenty-eight public schools that use these assessments instead of “normal” standardizes tests, and the students at these schools have had higher graduation rates and college acceptances (Kamenetz). Greater graduation rates and college acceptances are what every school should be aiming for and with the results that these schools have had, schools should be leaning more towards these ideas because it helps the students and the teachers more in the long run.
Anya Kamenetz believes that there should also be a test that tests students social and emotional skills because, “Research shows that at least half of long-term chances of success are determined by nonacademic qualities like grit, perseverance and curiosity,” (Kamenetz). This could improve how teachers teach because if a child is not excited about going to school every day, then they are not going to be as motivated and then they will not perform as well on tests. A person’s personality reflects a lot about them and their schooling. It is important that teachers are aware of how their students are feeling about their school and future because teachers have a large effect on whether students drop-out, go to community college, apprentice schools, or universities.
Standardized testing continues through high school. The SAT and ACT are required when applying for colleges, and more standardized tests are required for applying to graduate schools. These standardized tests make sense. Whether it is undergraduate or postgraduate, colleges and universities receive applications from all over the country. The SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests for graduate programs are the best way to equally test every student. Where having a 3.5 GPA at one school may be harder than having a 4.0 GPA at another school, the SAT and ACT are the only tests where every student is taking the exact same test in the exact same time regardless of their state and county. Therefore, it makes sense that colleges rely on the scores because they can see where every student stands in comparison to other students in their class.
The issue that comes about with the SAT and ACT is the monetary issue. It costs money to take the SAT and ACT, and more than that where it is supposed to be a test that equally tests every student’s baseline, those with more money are given an advantage. This issue comes about with students who pay thousands of dollars for classes to help them prepare for the test, or private tutors, who can help students prepare for the test. Dylan Hernandez describes that these tests that are, “supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap,” (Hernandez). Hernandez, from Flint, Michigan, was exposed to this reality when he was lucky enough to enter a summer program at Phillips Exeter. There, along with the academic classes, they offered an optional SAT prep course, which dumbfounded Hernandez as to why such smart, rich people would want to study even more (Hernandez). What he found, was that these students from “Super ZIPS” (wealthy, educated neighborhoods) did not just want to do well on the SATs, but wanted to a good enough score that would place them, “in the top percentile of students in the United States and make them National Merit Scholars in the fall,” (Hernandez). This is amazing because, for me, my teachers and counselors told me and my peers to take the SAT and ACT once without studying to see how we did, and then get a prep book and with that we should be fine, because like Hernandez mentioned, the test is designed so that you are not supposed to study for it. Hernandez describes the same phenomenon in his hometown, but says that the secret he found through this program was, “to get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete,” (Hernandez). This doesn’t seem fair because an exam that is supposed to be equal for everyone ends up being whether or not you luck out on where you live/ how much your parents make.
In addition, colleges base scholarships based off of not only GPAs but also test scores, so for less fortunate, poor people, who need the scholarship money to go to college, are given the short end of the stick because the wealthier people are given the scholarships. Not because they are smarter, but because they were fortunate enough to be able to afford expensive prep classes. Therefore, colleges should take into account whether or not students took prep classes in relation to their scores. Also, there should be a free option for those students who are not able to afford to take the test, because all students should have the opportunity to go to college regardless of their income.
Another issue that comes with these standardized tests are the lengths that students go to, to do well on them. Getting into college is more competitive than ever that, “the intense competition it fuels undermines students’ well-being; pressures applicants to fine-tune their test-taking skills and inflate their resumes; and distorts the purpose of high education,” (Wong). I am not saying that students should disregard the SAT and ACT, but college is not just about tests. Not only that, but the SAT has a reading, writing, and math section. The skills tested are supposed to be things that you have already learned, and these skills are important, for some these are not what they are good at. There are options to take subject tests, but they are not that well known and they cost just as much as the regular test, but they do not mean as much to college admissions. College admissions should look more at the subject tests, especially if it has to do with the major that the student is pursuing. For example, if a student wishes to pursue engineering, then they should take the subject test in calculus and physics.
Colleges should no rely on testing so much in general when it comes to admissions. Some students simply are not good test takers. That is no reflection of them as a student, but test anxiety is an issue among several students and when placed in a room for hours at a time, without being able to talk, it is hard for any person to not have test anxiety and perform to the best of their ability. Colleges should focus more on extracurricular activities and classes taken in high school because often times, those are more of a reflection of the student’s character and their motivation. Perhaps a personality section on the SAT or ACT would be useful. Students now tend to join clubs and do community service in high school not because they care, but because they want to look good to colleges, or as Alia Wong describes, “Instead of preparing themselves for college-or more importantly, for life- students spend all of their pre-college years preparing for the moment of admission,” (Wong). This overall thought, while true, needs to be changed. A personality test of the SAT or ACT would show if the student is motivated to get through college and do something with their lives instead of just drowning in student loans for the rest of their lives. Anyone can teach themselves to do well on tests, but not everyone can motivate themselves to do well in college, and colleges should accept students who will motivate themselves to do well, but may not have the best test scores, than students who have good test scores but end up getting overwhelmed and dropping out of school.
In conclusion, standardized testing needs to be reformed not only at the elementary level but also at the SAT/ACT level. As a student myself, I have experienced the stress associated with taking standardized tests, and as a student who is not the best test-taker, I do not believe that standardized testing is the best way to measure a student’s intelligence. I am intelligent, but my SAT and ACT scores do not reflect that. If I had been given the option to do a project or a research study, then I think that I would have been placed in more advanced classes when I was younger instead of being bored in my standard classes. I also believe that if I had been given a project or a research study then I would have been eligible for more scholarships for college. There are many other students out there just like me and they should not be punished for not being good at taking tests. They should be given other options, especially if something as big as college is on the line.