On Standardized Testing

In this blog, we have been scratching the surface of a discussion on mass education and exploring what has gotten us where we are today with schooling. We saw that standardization (of environments, goals, methods) is one effect of the fact education became such a huge and ever-growing institution. A striking example of this development is the standardized test, which has become such an important part of education. 

Standardization of exams and conditions around exams is not new. We first see it in Han dynasty China, with the development of civil service exams in a decidedly Confucian fashion - covering the arts, ethics, and horsemanship, among other topics. Today, standardized tests are remarkably researched and controlled. In many circumstances, guidelines are given for exactly what the room should look like when the test is given, what type of pencil one can use, how far apart desks for test-takers must be, and so on.

The underlying principle behind a standardized test is that all test-takers answer the same (or similar) questions so they can be compared to one another. It is important to note that this is the most important feature: comparison, and the subsequent ranking of test-takers. Although many educators, parents, and students would argue that the foundational goal of education should be something more powerful than comparison, like, say, learning, these tests make comparison and ranking the primary goal. Their ease of use and scoring “at scale” make them economical, but many argue their results do not reflect genuine learning, but only a ranking of test-takers relative to a single experience. This single-use of a type of instrument might not pose any problem to education and genuine learning if it did not have such a “backwash effect” on schooling and learning. 

What does this mean? Consider this. How many of us had classes in school in which the teacher “graded on the curve?” At the time, you may not have known what this meant in technical detail, but you were probably really happy when it was done, because it almost always meant your score went up. What was that teacher doing? He or she was forcing you and your peers onto a normal distribution curve. It usually meant students did not perform very well on the teacher’s test, and so the teacher effectively ranked the students and assigned the few highest marks to the fewest students who managed to get the most correct, the bulk of students with “average” grades, and the few lowest students with the lowest or failing grades. So, the scores are a reflection of the ranking we would expect to see in the student population according to the normal curve, not necessarily what they really understand about the subject. The teacher was using a technique borrowed from large-scale standardized testing to apply to a single class of students.

The normal curve was first used to describe human characteristics by Quetelet, an astronomer and statistician from just down the road in Ghent, in 1835. This is where we first got the idea of talking about the average person. Prior to that, no one spoke of anyone else as above average or below average. Imagine that! This type of thinking has become so fixed for us that as you read this, you might be thinking, “But it stands to reason that the curve is correct, as we know there are a few really smart people, the bulk of us have average intelligence, and there are a few with really low intelligence. Just look at IQ scores.” Again, I would argue this is a backwash effect, as the IQ test is itself a norm-referenced test on which test-takers are ranked, forced into a normal curve, and then assigned an IQ. The scale is pre-determined, so 100 is an average score.

This entry has already gone on longer than others. We will continue with some of this thinking later. In the meantime, I invite you to listen to a couple of podcasts, if you are interested. An ASH parent recommended an episode of a podcast from Malcolm Gladwell, a prolific writer for New Yorker Magazine and bestselling author. He is not a scientist, but he likes to probe multiple issues. In two episodes, Puzzle Rush and The Tortoise and The Hare, he explores the world of standardized testing through the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) in the US, and this is his doorway to a discussion about education in general. Enjoy.

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