Standardized tests do not work. The tests, which are norm-referenced, are supposed to be able to compare the performance of one student to another in the same grade. Public schools use standardized tests to demonstrate student performance from one year to the next. Adequate student performance is one of the requirements of the “No Child Left Behind Act.” Failure to meet the guidelines set forth in NCLB results in forfeiture of funding for the school.
Standardized Tests Explained
A standardized test score is a percentile score. This is a norm-referenced score. The score is determined by assigning a percent based on a bell curve. A bell curve is a graph shaped like a bell. The highest number of scores will be in the middle of the bell or curve. Fewer scores will fall to either side of the center. It is assumed that most students will fall into the 50th percentile so an average score on a standardized test is a 50 percent. In theory, the norm-referenced test should allow students in one grade to be compared with any other student in the same grade. However, this is not the case as different tests are used and the results are not always comparable from one test to another. I discuss this issue in my article “The Problem with Standardized Tests.”
Teacher and Administrator Cheating
Any test is subject to cheating. This holds true for standardized tests as well. What happens when you tie school funding and teacher pay to standardized test scores? Teachers and school administrators cheat. I am not accusing all school administrators and teachers of being cheaters–that is not the case. Most school officials and teachers are honest. However, there is a disturbing trend of teacher and administrator cheating that warrants a closer look.
The New York Times reported in February 2010 about teachers and school administrators tampering with standardized test scores in 191 different schools across the state. According to the article, 20 percent or one in five of Georgia’s schools were suspect.
Georgia is not the only state with issues. In 2008 schools in Washington D.C. faced similar problems. The list goes on to include New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Cheating by teachers and administrators is detected when the test answer sheets have a high number of erasures. If a school will not meet their numbers, administrators have incentive to change student scores. Not meeting guidelines for one year places a school on notice. If a school fails to meet standards for several years in a row, they face the possibility of state takeover or closure.
Teachers with pay and bonuses tied to test scores have incentive to cheat. If a class is not performing well, the teacher’s paycheck contains less money.
Teaching the Test
We have all heard the phrase “teaching the test.” It is based on the pressure and stress that surrounds standardized test score performance. School districts with tight budget constraints will fund reading and math programs at the expense of everything else in order to make sure that the test scores are within an appropriate range to meet NCLB guidelines. Many schools have practice tests in the fall so that they can see where students are lacking. Tests are taken in the spring after several months of preparation. This narrows the scope of subject material being taught to the students as the focus is on reading and math.
Stress and pressure are further increased if inclement weather forces schools to close. With testing in early spring, snow days interfere with test preparation time. Less preparation means lower scores, this in turn impacts potential funding and teacher pay. It turns into a vicious cycle of “teach the test” because nothing else matters more than good test scores.
Children are told by their teachers that it is very important to be in school for the test and during review days. This encourages parents to send sick children to school. While it may seem minor, when children come to school with infectious diseases such as the flu or strep throat, it places the entire community at risk.
Standardized Tests in Arkansas
Arkansas students in grades three through nine are required to take standardized tests in reading and math. Attendance is mandatory on test days. Students who miss the scheduled test are subject to make-up testing. It is the goal to test every eligible student although 100 percent testing does not happen. Special provisions are made for students with disabilities. Public school children in Arkansas take the Stanford test.
Arkansas schools that fail to meet No Child Left Behind guidelines are put on probation. When schools fail to meet standards for seven years in a row all teachers are forced to reapply for their jobs and only 51 percent will be rehired. The remaining 49 percent may be transferred to another school or they can look for employment elsewhere.
Arkansas homeschoolers are subject to the same requirements as the public school kids. Homeschooled children in grades three through nine must take a standardized test in the spring. The state provides the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to homeschooled students. This is a different test from the public schools. Failure to comply with testing regulations may result in losing the right to homeschool. Homeschoolers have the option to use a private testing service at their own expense. There is no penalty to homeschoolers if a child does not perform well on a standardized test. Scores are not reviewed by the individual school districts or the state.
As a homeschool parent in Arkansas, I choose to use a private testing service for my 5th grader. This allows me to comply with the state regulations and I have the choice of which test my son takes. Test scores are sent directly to me from the testing service. The state does not receive a copy of my homeschooler’s test scores.
I believe that there should be some way to measure student performance, but standardized testing is not working. There should be a national test where every student in each grade takes the same test. This would eliminate the need for norm-referenced tests. Change the current guidelines to include a national test and make the federal government pay for the testing. Stop tying school funding and teacher performance to yearly test scores. Instead, tract individual student scores from year to year. This is a better indication of student and school performance than yearly, anonymous norm-referenced testing.
Other content you may enjoy:
The Problem with Standardized Tests
Preparing for Standardized Tests
Should Standardized Tests Be Required for All Public, Private and Home Schools?, by Lyn Lomasi
New York Times; “Georgia Georgia Schools Inquiry Finds Signs of Cheating”; Shaila Dewann; Feburary 11, 2010.
Arkansas Homeschool Testing Office