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Standardized Testing is Not a Monolith

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

The pros and cons of standardized testing in education have been hotly debated for generations. A quick search of the keyword “standardized testing” will return thousands of recently posted tweets with opinions ranging from “testing is the root of all evil” to “testing saved the world” and everything in between. As I have engaged in debate related to standardized testing, both professionally and recreationally (thanks Twitter), I have noticed that parties on all sides have failed to accept the nuance of the issue. Standardized testing is not a monolith – there are a wide variety of standardized tests available and each is designed to serve a unique purpose. In this post, I want to explore a few different categories of standardized testing in hopes of elevating the discourse.

I want to acknowledge that certain tests may fall within multiple categories listed below and that some of the category names I have chosen to stray away from traditional parlance. I’ve done that here intentionally to further illustrate the nuance of the standardized testing issue.

Defining a Standardized Test

Before we begin, let’s agree on a definition of a standardized test. For the purposes of this post, a standardized test is a test that is administered in a standard or consistent way. Similarly, the outcomes are scored and interpreted the same way for all test takers. Standardized tests can be norm-referenced (tests that compare an individual test-taker to all test takers) or criterion-referenced (compares an individual test-taker to a set of established criteria).

Annual Testing

Let’s start with the most controversial of the standardized testing varieties – the annual test. Sometimes called “state testing” or “high-stakes testing”, this category of standardized test is deployed at the behest of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which requires states to have a “system of annual meaningful differentiation” which sorts and ranks schools based on a number of state created school quality indicators. Annual testing is usually performed at the end of the school year and over several days. It usually covers reading, math, writing/mechanics, science, and social studies and is designed to provide a standardized summative review of the learning gained during the school year.

Benchmark Assessments

Benchmark assessments are those designed to help a teacher understand the progress students are making as they go through the school year. They are usually given multiple times during the school year, often quarterly. Many popular tests are offered using a technique called “computer adaptive testing”. In computer adaptive testing, an algorithm chooses questions of varying difficulties to attempt to mark the high end of a students learning at that time. Another type of benchmark assessment is the common formative assessment. These are usually locally created formative assessments that are given by all the teachers in a building or school district. The idea behind a common formative assessment is that it allows teachers and leaders to understand how students are progressing across classrooms within the system.

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnostic tests are usually computerized exams that are designed to break down learning into component parts and identify specific weak areas in a student’s knowledge so that the teacher can address it directly. Many benchmark tests are also diagnostic tests. They usually generate detailed, student level reports that teachers can use to create groups for remediation and acceleration.

Aptitude Tests

Aptitude tests are assessments that are designed to predict your success. They focus on measuring a test-takers current skill in an effort to predict later success and are commonly used as entry or placement tests. Aptitude tests are also frequently given to students engaging in career exploration as their predictive value is believed by some to help students narrow down potential career choices. Finally, aptitude tests are sometimes used by large companies to predict a worker’s potential for success in a specific role.

Intelligence Tests (IQ)

Intelligence tests, more commonly called IQ tests, are tests designed to measure an individual’s overall range of cognitive abilities. Intelligence tests vary greatly, but they generally seek to measure things like memory, mathematical thinking, spacial perception, and flexibility in language use. In modern school systems, intelligence testing is largely used for the diagnosis of intellectual disability and screening or placement into special education services. Like aptitude tests, many businesses continue to use intelligence tests for candidate screening as a part of the job application process – with some even embedding intelligence tests right in the application itself.

Licensure Tests

Licensure tests are commonplace in many professions and may be administered independently, by a school system, by an employer, or by a professional association or licensing board. Licensure tests are designed to ensure that those entering a profession have the basic knowledge necessary to be successful in their chosen field. Some licensure tests are administered only once, while fields with rapidly changing knowledge bases may require re-testing at regular intervals throughout one’s career. You can find a list of all the professions requiring a licensure test at the National Occupational Licensing Database.

Developmental and Behavioral Screeners

Developmental and behavioral screeners consider how a child is developing. These are usually norm-reference tests that seek to determine whether a child is developing and/or behaving as expected given their age. These types of assessments are often given to students entering the public school system in kindergarten or first grade in an effort to screen for delays that may benefit from additional support services. They may also be used to assist in the diagnosis of behavioral disorders or the monitoring of the effectiveness of various treatments or therapies.

Portfolio/Performance Assessments

I want to round out this discussion of standardized test with a quick discussion on a type of test that many consider not to be a standardized assessment – the portfolio or performance assessment. With this type of assessment, the student demonstrates their ability to perform a given task, either through a particular project (performance) or through a collection of prior work (portfolio). Portfolio and performance assessments are not always standardized assessments, but I include them in this list because they frequently meet the definition established at the beginning of the post. Students are usually given the same task or are required to maintain a portfolio with the same minimum entry requirements. These assessments are often graded with a uniform grading rubric and by a committee of reviewers who have undergone specialized training and calibration activities, and the outcomes of their evaluation are designed to be interpreted the same way for all test-takers.

A Plea for Elevated Discourse

The public debate over standardized testing is as hot now as it has ever been. Across the United States (and the world for that matter) policy makers, educators, parents, students, and community leaders are engaged in heated discussion about the role, relevance, appropriateness, and use of standardized testing. In my experience, the public discourse around standardized testing lacks the nuance and detail discussed in this post. If we want to have meaningful conversations about assessment and craft meaningful policy that heals the errors of the past and promotes greater accuracy and transparency for the future, we must elevate our discourse and clarify our language. This is the only way that we can begin to move beyond partisan talking points and carefully consider the impact that standardized testing policy and programs have on our students. I hope you will join me in this effort to speak clearly and with precision the next time you are asked about standardized tests.

Good luck on your journey friends!

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