The worst test I ever took was during the second semester of my first year of college. The course was world literature, and the professor was the problem. The class would begin by him coming in ten minutes late, picking a sentence from the reading that was assigned for that day, and then delving into a rant about the depravity of the world, which usually included a political section, and then the class was over. I kept up with the course readings, translated the lectures into notes, wrote the required papers, and even met with him outside of class for extra help.
And, after all that work and effort, I got a D on the final exam.
The test wasn’t the worst because it was difficult. It wasn’t even the worst because I all but failed it. Instead, it was the worst because I am not a D student. I’m not even a B student! I’m comfortably an A- student, and that test did not reflect my knowledge, abilities, or skills as a student.
Yet, I was the one who got a 2.7 on my transcript from that class; the professor, instead, got tenure.
Please don’t misunderstand this post: I love teachers. They make up the majority of my Facebook friends. However, if roles were reversed, I definitely wouldn’t have given all the teachers I’ve had As in their courses. In the majority of cases, this is because I feel that I have been inaccurately assessed: that my abilities, knowledge, and effort were not reflected by the grade I had received.
This is why—despite how poorly we do it in America—I will never post about how standardized testing is the villain of our educational system.
Yes, standardized test scores are basically not predictive of college success.
Yes, standardized testing is frustrating because the domains are so broad, and the stakes are so high.
Yes, standardized test scores are fetishized by those in power to the point where they are believed to be infallible indicators of not only student achievement, but teaching ability as well.
…but I just can’t give up on them. Here’s why:
- In a perfect world, standardized tests would be really helpful. Imagine if the ACT results told me, “Hey Michael! Based on how you answered my questions, you’ll probably get an A- if you decide to major in English in college. But here’s how you can get an A:” instead of saying I got a 20 in reading (whatever the hell that means). They’d be coveted fortune tellers that everyone would want to participate in.
- Like it or not, to learn more about how to improve education, classroom tests are not enough. Teachers will never have the knowledge of psychometricians, unless they take on the burdens of being psychometricians themselves (and if they were required to, I think we’d have a large shortage of teachers on our hands because advanced statistics, in my experience, is rarely a motivator for teaching). Classroom tests are, for the most part, valid indicators of an individual student’s academic abilities because teachers know their students in human ways that tests will never be able to. But, while not omnipotent, standardized tests have a power of their own that is important for answering questions beyond a particular student’s abilities.
And, finally, the third reason that hopefully pervades all posts this month:
- Villainy—like a bad test—is usually oversimplified. At times, this simplicity of evil deeply resonates with me, like when nine innocent people lose their lives during a Bible study at a church in South Carolina. But in the majority of cases, I think we are so quick to demonize that we begin losing our ability to recognize goodness at all. We become blind to the seeds of Heaven, when it’s already so hard to notice the trees.
For those who have not been convinced by my argument, the good news is that I don’t think the New Earth will have a need for standardized testing. But I urge you to see the hope for these tests in the Earth that’s home to us now.
Please, continue to voice your concerns with how testing is done in America. Say that the tests don’t fairly reflect your abilities, and definitely don’t reflect your teachers’ abilities, either. Say that testing shouldn’t be mandatory for all students because it has too much influence over curriculums. Stand for change, because change is needed. But as a favor to my future, and to the future of our struggling students, don’t lose sight of what could be, because that’s the only thing that moves us forward.
Michael Kelly (’14) graduated from Calvin College with a double major in psychology and writing. Shortly after graduating, he began his graduate level study of educational research, measurement, and evaluation at Boston College. When he is not studying learning and teaching, Michael learns and teaches through stories and writing—fiction and nonfiction, comedy and tragedy, and everything else in between.