Standardised Testing: What’s wrong with it & what is the solution?

With the recent bad publicity of standardised testing & the multi million pound ‘for profit’ companies that provide them (see BBC article: Examination Board ‘Cheats’), I thought this would be both a relevant and thought provoking post.

In his book ‘The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores & Ruining the Schools (2000)’, Alfie Kohn suggests there are numerous reasons that ‘standardised tests are a poor measure of intellectual profiency’.

Furthermore, he suggests that standardised tests are good at measuring 2 things:

1.  Affluence – ‘Upto 90% of the difference in the scores among schools, communities or even states can be accounted for, statistically speaking, without knowing anything about what happened in the classroom.  All you need…are facts about the average income & education levels of the student’s parents’.

2.  Narrow skill set – Standardised tests…’measure how skillful a particular group of students is at taking standardised tests’.

On top of this information, it is also relevant to mention that tests are also rigidly timed.  So a further question is, do tests measure thoughtfulness and deep understanding or speediness, shallow thinking and a regurgitation of memorised facts?

To put this concept into a real world context lets look at the world of innovative ideas and products.  James Dyson is well known for his invention of bagless vacuum cleaners that do not lose suction; this is now a multi billion pound business (although this isn’t the point!).  When he first came up with his ‘cyclonic separation’ technology it took 10 years, thousands of tweeks and prototypes and thousands of persistent & creative man hours before it became an ‘overnight’ success!

Simarly, the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, are credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane at the turn of the 20th century.  Their secret was the ‘invention of a three axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium’.  This method became standard and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds’ (thanks Wikipedia!).  Interestingly, neither graduated from high school.  For 3 solid years, from 1900 to 1903, they extensively experimented with gliders to improve their mechanical function and their skills as pilots.  Needless to say, there were probably a few bumps along the way!

It seems common sense that any great, creative (‘an original idea of value’ – thanks to Sir Ken for the definition) idea or product will take time to nurture, foster and tinker with; where taking risks and making mistakes are all part of the creative process.  Would James Dyson and the Wright brothers been able to execute game changing ideas successfully if they had 2 hours to complete it?  Or even a year?

So, should we make standardised tests the main focus of a students’ success when the outcome of the tests could have a major effect on their future life choices and opportunities?

I’m not entirely sure what the alternatives are; how do you separate university and job applicants without previous test scores? Should we encourage more long term, project based learning that requires a deep understanding of different areas of the curriculum?

Answers on a postcard please…

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2 Responses to Standardised Testing: What’s wrong with it & what is the solution?

  1. Hi I attempted to sign up to your RSS and the link seems to be broken. How can i get around this?

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