Features March 2020

Understanding Standardized Tests

Every spring, schools across the nation give students millions of standardized tests.  Students sit for hours, filling in answer bubbles with their number two pencils for an exam that may span days. They’re told the tests are “important”, they need to “do their best”, and that they have “one chance” to show what they’ve learned. For any child–much less one with test anxiety, ADHD, or learning disabilities–it can be a painful process.

Should we let our students take these tests?  In some parts of the country, up to 20% of students did not participate. What can a test tell us about how our kids are doing?

Here are five things parents should know about assessment testing: 

1. Tests don’t measure what we think they do. We expect tests to tell us how much students have learned. However, significant evidence shows tests aren’t great at figuring out what you know or what your potential is. For example scoring well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) has almost no correlation with success in college. The best predictor of college success is actually high school grades.

2. Tests are designed to be efficient and compare groups.  Group comparisons are valuable because they give us data about curriculum efficacy and how to allocate funding however these tests won’t cover every topic students learned and will need to be easy to give and grade.  That means test authors have to use questions like multiple choice and leave out questions that might get at more important skills like critical thinking or creativity resulting in rewarding passive and superficial learning like memorizing facts or formulas.

3. Test prep is often antithetical to learning. 

Students score a little better on the state exam in states where there is more accountability of teachers for test scores however research shows that states that focus on accountability perform much worse on nationwide and international tests than states that place less emphasis on accountability. It turns out the time your teacher spent prepping for test taking would have been better spent teaching more academic content.

4. Different tests tell us about individual learning. We need to make sure we’re doing different kinds of testing so we get good group AND individual data which best measures individual growth and are integrated into learning.  Assessment is authentic when it asks students to apply their knowledge to real-world, meaningful problems.  Rather than giving geometry students worksheet problems to solve, implement a project to come up with a better juice box that minimized shipping costs and maximized profits.

5.  How can I make sure my child is doing well? Be involved. Districts are great at letting parents know when and how students will participate in standardized tests, but the only way to know about what’s happening in the classroom is to talk with your child’s teacher.

Teachers are experts–they know how important assessment is and how to do it well.  Don’t be afraid to ask how your child will be graded on what they learn, what success looks like, or how much time will be spent preparing for standardized tests.

Written by: Hilary Scharton, Canvas


Hilary Scharton loves education and has worked in it, in some form or another, for her entire career. She currently serves as VP of K-12 Strategy, Canvas, the open online learning management system (LMS) that makes teaching and learning easier.

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