Standardized State Tests: Myths vs. Reality

Over the years’, I’ve proctored many standardized state tests. Typically, teachers aren’t allowed to proctor their own students during testing. One might think this is due to teachers wanting to “help” their students more than what is allowed.

The truth is, teachers aren’t allowed to proctor their own students’ tests, because if teachers actually watched some of their own students testing, they might literally fall over and die.

There have been rumors that standardized state tests are on their way out, but most districts still administer them every spring. Standardized state test scores are still considered when evaluating teacher effectiveness, giving raises and determining if a school is deemed “failing” or a success.

Teachers are acutely aware of the implications of standardized state tests. I’ve seen schools go to extreme lengths to encourage, motivate or persuade students to do well on state tests. The problem is, most students do not feel the same level of responsibility.

Should they?

The day before the ISATs, the state test previously administered in Illinois, one elementary school held a Homecoming-like, pep rally. Designed to get kids excited about taking the tests, the school bought ice cream, and teachers, dressed in blue and white school colors, led chants and cheers encouraging students to do their best.

Another junior high in Minnesota, waited until the morning of the MCA tests to start its festivities. At precisely 9:00 am, the entire student body was led outside to the track. Each child was handed a graham cracker sandwich and instructed to walk two laps around the quarter-mile track. Loud, pop music blasted from the public address speakers into the April morning air, as the too-cool teenagers sauntered around the track. At 9:30 am, students were quickly ushered inside, and the test began.

This year's test involved much less fanfare. I proctored a group of 3rd through 5th graders who I typically don’t work with. Today’s tests were given on computers and students were required to drag boxes, move answers and highlight sentences in addition to choosing A, B, C or D.

The third graders jumped right in. Without a word of instruction, these fearless children found all the accommodations built into the test. Within minutes, screens all around the room were changing background colors, magnifying texts and highlighting entire pages. They were playing.

Like a slightly frantic British Royal Guard, I paced up and down the rows of the computer lab, calmly touching shoulders, pointing at computer screens and giving evil eyes. The eight-year-olds looked up at me confused, and continued experimenting with the font colors.

Twenty minutes passed and I continued my slow Buddhist monk-like walk around the room. While some kids continued to play, others put their heads down, refusing to work.

Inside I was screaming to myself, why can’t these kids understand how important this is? I felt angry and defeated.

Then I remembered, they are only kids.

I reached Alexis and noticed she was almost done with the test. She looked up at me with sincere, big brown eyes and asked, “Will Mrs. Carter get in trouble if we do bad?”

Hmmm, I thought. Should I explain to her the Q-Comp pay incentive program? Should I tell her that Mrs. Carter probably has student learning objective goals riding on this test? Should I tell her that meeting her SLO goals can mean an extra $800 for Mrs. Carter? Should I tell her that additionally, in our district, student standardized test scores count for 15% of a teachers’ year-end performance evaluation?

I looked at the tiny, tan, eight-year-old girl, with long eyelashes. She had just sat in front of what looked to her like a game and played it reckless and fast. She wanted to beat her friends. She wanted to find the coolest background color. She wanted to be done.

She is only a kid.

No amount of ice cream, fresh air or cheerleading will make kids feel responsible for the performance of their school. They do not equate their test taking with the effectiveness of their teacher. Alexis didn’t take her time on the test. Does this mean her teacher is not effective? Or the school is failing?

Teachers know the reality of standardized state tests is much different that the myths some believe. Are standardized state tests really the best measure of our schools' success?

Maybe it is time to find a new way.

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