A standardized test is a set of tasks that schools give to students to tell them where a student is in their learning, how they are doing in comparison to thousands of others, and where they are most likely headed according to statistical probability. There is certainly something very seductive about the promise of standardized testing and, when C20th schools were shooting for standardized outcomes, standardized testing gave you an idea where students were on their journey based on the assumption that they were all headed in the same general direction. After all, they were all studying the same material and expected to produce the same sorts of outcomes.
The thing is, that isn’t our world any more. The future isn’t standardized and we most definitely don’t see students as all being the same. So if this is the case, is there any validity in standardized testing any more?
Some schools make use of a suite of standardized tests called Measurement of Academic Progress (or MAP). They feel they give an idea of how students are doing based on statistical norms in English, Math and (in Upper Elementary and Middle School) Science. Think of them as a general indicator if things are heading in the kind of direction we would expect. A little bit like the dashboard in your car: some indicative data that tells you if you are going in the right speed, if the engine is running ok, and so forth. But, just like the dashboard in your car, the MAP tests do not tell you anything more than a few select headlines. Your dashboard doesn’t tell you how your passengers are feeling, how satisfied they are with the journey or how anxious they may be whilst driving. Your dashboard tells you many things, but it cannot tell you what the driver needs, or if the journey is meaningful. So too with MAP – or any other objective test in schools for that matter. MAP cannot tell you how proficient a student is as a problem solver, or how creative the student is. It cannot tell you how well the student works with others, or how motivated the student is to learn about the world. MAP tells you nothing about student well-being, or a student’s character. All MAP tells you is a few simple (yet important) dashboard indicators about a few select things.
As a parent I have to confess that i have been guilty of getting swept up in MAP Fever. It isn’t pretty, let me tell you. Its symptoms include anxiety, hyper-interest in scores and data, fear of falling behind (behind what? Who?), and – worst of all – referring that anxiety to your child. As an educational professional I know that good data is useful but I also know that inflating the importance of test data is tremendously harmful. It is harmful to students, to their self-esteem and to their understanding of what really matters in learning. I appreciate that there will be some parents who may disagree with me, but all I would ask – from parents, from teachers and from administrators – is a sense of perspective. A test is just a test. It is a dashboard indicator. At best it is a partial snapshot of one piece of the picture at one moment in time. Let’s not fall into the trap of seeing it as anything more than that.
We no longer live in a standardized world, so let’s not exaggerate the importance of standardized testing in our teaching or in our parenting.