The Blog

As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Standardized Testing — Helpful or Harmful

I believe that most adults understand and have learned how to communicate with and to deal with the health care system better than they understand the school system.  They now what  questions to ask the doctor.  If he prescribes a medicine they know to ask the side effects.  They might even get out a medical book and learn about the disease or at least what the symptoms mean.  They might even ask for a second opinion.  They might even ask for a second opinion.  They need to be helped to do the same with the school system.  Our schools have a great deal to offer if parents know how to use them well.

What is it all about, Alfie?  Is it about helping our children become life long learners and creative thinkers or is it about producing good test takers who know how to fill in the blanks with at one correct answer?

We probably cannot control whether our children will become lifelong learners since that is a personal decision.  We can be careful, however, and take appropriate steps to prevent them from becoming permanently conditioned against learning.

Which gets us to the topic….standardized testing.

Schools need to accent intellectual goals over academic goals.  Academic goals are concerned with achievement and getting good  grades.  Intellectual goals are concerned with learning and being an inquirer.  One way to emphasize the difference is to say to your child when he comes home from school:  “Did you ask any questions today?” rather then, “Did you get an A on the test today?”

Testing need not be a cause of alarm or anxiety to the student.  The test is a necessary tool and is not being used to trick the student.  It is merely data, along with other data that allows the student and the teacher to plan ahead.

Standardized tests on groups of students are useful and were meant to compare groups, not individual students.  When used correctly, the results help school systems to evaluate their programs.

Each school system is unique and should have unique goals.  Results from achievement tests help schools to determine, if, in fact they are achieving those goals.  If the test scores in math at the second grade, for example, indicate that the students are not doing well, then the faculty should look at their program and take appropriate steps to improve it.

Achievement tests were not standardized to determine an individual child’s progress. If they are used this way, they should only be viewed as screening devices because there are too few questions to determine if there is a learning problem or if there is a problem, what the problem is.

If your child shows a drop in reading comprehension score, you should as ask if the school is going to give him a diagnostic test to determine if there is a real problem.  Sometimes the problem is merely that a different test was used.  He may have taken the elementary form of the test last year, and this year he took the intermediate form because he advanced a grade.  The two tests are not comparable.  Diagnostic tests and perhaps tests of hearing and vision give more data and help to pinpoint specific areas of difficulty.

If the school, on the basis of group end of year achievement tests, tell you that your child’s performance is deficient in some way, you should ask a number of question.  “What further testing will be done to verify and pinpoint the problem?”  “What program do you plan for my child in order to help him to learn better and possibly improve his scores?”  In other words, insist that the test scores be used as tools for planning your child’s program and not merely as a statement that his deficient in some way.

Schools are made up of a community of people.  Every school community must decide what it is all about and what it wants to accomplish for its members. It needs to be a group decision because each member is important for the successes of the others and each member has to take some responsibility for the failures.

For example, from test results, a school discovers that its students are not doing well in math, there are several options.  One is to send home a report card indicating failure on the student’s part thus making it no longer the school’s problem but the parent’s problem.  Another option is to blame the family, which could include but not be limited to single parenting, poverty, illiteracy, dysfunctional and so forth thus, from the school’s point of view, making it impossible for the students to learn math.

A better option is for the district to take a problem solving approach and come up with possible solutions without placing blame.

Since the teachers are the backbone of any school system and make the biggest difference in whether the children learn or not one solution might be to have the staff honestly assess its strengths and weaknesses.  Any group of people has individual strengths and weaknesses.  In a safe environment, it would be okay for teachers to say what they do well and what they do not do well.  In most cases, members of the school community already know which teachers are strong in certain areas and which are not.

Some weak teachers compensate by rigorously following the textbook and limiting classroom discussions.  In most cases, this does not produce good math students or good students in general.

There are options to solve most problems.  If the school community honestly looks for them.  Just to mention a few in the case of poor teaching.  Teachers could team teach with one taking over the math and science and other the liberal art5s.  Teachers who want to improve their math skills could be encouraged to visit classrooms of superior math teachers.  Staff development opportunities could be made available for teachers to visit other schools with outstanding programs and report back to their colleagues.  Time and money could be allocated for teachers to take courses to learn from highly recommended math programs.  In other words, all teachers would be helped to succeed in this educational enterprise called school.

All citizens at the school community need to share some responsibility for what happens there.  This included the students.  Children are not in a classroom to be individuals interacting one to one with the teacher.  They are part of a group brought together to help each other to learn and to grow.  If this were not the purpose and a class were merely a group people assigned to the same room in order to acquire information individually so that they can give it back correctly on tests, then a much more efficient way to about it, in this day and age, would be to put each child in front of a computer… thus eliminating school.

Parents are an essential component in the school’s success and, when not acting responsibly, may be the cause for some of its failures.  Parents can delegate the responsibility for their children’s education to the school but they cannot abdicate it.  That requires them to monitor and to supplement the program when necessary.  Some parents might need help to learn how to do this well.

Other parents promise their children a Rose Garden and then try to manipulate the world in order to get it for them.  A much better approach would be for them to help their child to become a problem solver.  The more successful children are at solving their own problems, the better able they are to accept the fact that, although they live in an imperfect world, they can handle it and can even experience moments of joy.  I wish all of you joy in your great adventure.

To educate means to draw out, to lead.  It does not mean to change a person into something he is not rather to accept him as he is with his individual inclinations, strengths and preferences.  Each teacher and student is unique and should be treated uniquely.  When we accept and rejoice in each other’s different personalities, temperaments, and learning styles true learning begins.  Diversity is to be encouraged and not stifled or nullified.






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