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If Not Standardized Tests, Then What?

Review by Jonathan Pollard

A lot of people will argue that we need standardized tests, if only because we have no alternative method of measuring student achievement, and making sure that all kids are getting a decent education.  This is completely false.  The only thing that standardized tests do is promote competition and a winner/loser environment by ranking one school, state, or student against another.  So how can parents be certain that their students are learning? Kohn offers the following alternatives:

    Parents could receive written descriptions of their child's performance from the teacher. 

    Parents could attend a conference with the teacher, or even maintain regular communication. 

    The most skillful teachers don't rely very heavily on standardized tests.  They observe their students, and communicate with them on a daily basis.  Good teachers can often tell, without using exams, how well a student is understanding things.  Parents might worry about whether or not a teacher's personal and non-test oriented evaluation of his or her students is accurate.  But how can we assume that tests are any more credible?

    Performance assessments.  These are opportunities for children to actually do something; maybe the conducting of an experiment and the presentation of its results, or even writing a play.  Another version of the performance assessment is the "portfolio".  Students can collect examples of work that they have done over the course of the year, or over the course of multiple years.  These types of assessments are far better than standardized or conventional tests at providing data about what students can do, and areas where they might need additional help. 

    Not all parents think that tests are the best way of evaluating their children's performance.  In a 1999 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the general public, respondents were asked which of four methods would provide the most accurate measure of a public school student's academic progress.  Only 27% of the respondents chose standardized test scores.  Examples of the students work was the first choice, receiving 33% of the votes.  The remainder of responses were split between letter grades and teacher-written observations. 

    If we continue to use standardized tests, we should do as much as possible to make them less damaging to children.  This includes making sure that tests aren't timed and don't include multiple choice questions.  It also includes making sure that the results of such tests are not norm-referenced.  Test results should be considered in absolute terms, meaning with reference to a given standard of achievement, rather than with reference to the scores of other students.  Additionally, reports of test scores should be evaluated with consideration given to special challenges faced by certain schools or districts: very low income community, lack of resources, language barriers, etc.  (Please see section 1 for a more detailed explanation of the term "norm-referenced"). 

    Not so frequently.  We need to realize that tests - in the traditional sense of the word - don't have to play such a huge role in our schools.  They can be used infrequently, as a means of obtaining some basic, but limited, information.