Debate about the value of testing abounds these days. The focus is primarily on the big picture, exploring whether testing is racially biased, economically prejudiced, or even useful at predicting college performance for applicants. While both sides make compelling, data-driven arguments, the debates always seem to omit a crucial element: the components of the tests themselves.
Standardized tests evaluate test takers’ comprehension of meaningful academic skills that are necessary for their success as students – in K-12 education, college, and graduate school – as well as in future career contexts. On an individual question level, all questions require essential academic skills that have been stipulated by teams of expert educators.
When a test is standardized, an individual student’s progress can be tracked; additionally, their performance relative to that of their peers can be objectively measured. At the K-12 level, mastery of specific skills is a metric that must be determined and met before, for example, a student moves on to a new unit or grade. All states employ some form of state test to evaluate programs and progress at the student, class, school, and district level. These ‘backward looking’ tests can reveal academic proficiency or identify the need for more academic support.
Looking forward, standardized tests contain specific questions that assess useful, demonstrable real-life skills necessary for many college classes, degree programs, occupations, and everyday tasks. For example, many test questions require knowledge of percentages. Calculating percentages is a skill that will be required in nearly every financial transaction for the rest of a person’s life, from the tip on a restaurant bill to the interest rate on a mortgage. Understanding your student loans requires a knowledge of percentages! Unsurprisingly, almost every standardized test, from SSAT to SAT to GRE, features numerous questions on percentages.
In other examples, test questions that ask for interpretations of bar graphs, histograms, circle graphs, or scatter plots model graphical representations are commonly found in textbooks, newspapers, periodicals, and research papers. Still other questions require knowledge of vocabulary: typically these are pervasive, essential words found in a range of texts from the social sciences to the natural sciences. Selecting the correct definition of a word in context is an exercise most people engage in subconsciously many times on any given day.
Many students have concluded that they’ll never have the need for algebra in their adult lives. But that’s simply not the case. Cooking is an activity – a life skill – that incorporates principles of algebra, as well as chemistry, geometry, time management, executive functioning, and a basic knowledge of nutrition. “Teaching to the test,” in this instance, is teaching to real life.
For the most part, standardized tests employ questions that assess easily identifiable and essential skills for academic and career success in many to most fields. Therefore, it would be in everyone’s best interest to determine whether students can understand and apply these concepts. Perhaps one could argue that grades demonstrate student academic mastery instead. But with an issue such as percentages, for example, is this true? The student may have mastered the topic at one time but has mostly or completely forgotten it since. They may have achieved a grade whose value is obscured by test corrections, undervalued or inflated as a result of the subjectivity of grading or even tutoring. But students must utilize certain skills on a regular basis in order to participate in academia and function successfully in society. Standardized testing can assess whether a student comprehends, can bring to mind, and apply the essential skills they’ve learned over long periods of time. Without the tests, students, teachers, and administrators lose valuable information about whether students need specific remediation, are right on track, or are ready for more advanced subject material.
Standardized tests provide current and relevant information about a student’s profile of academic skills. And this assertion rests not on broad ideals, but on the test questions. Critics should examine individual test questions and explain what it is that is objectionable about asking students if they know the material contained therein. The appropriate and sensible use of standardized testing can be a critical indicator of a student’s academic performance. Test scores provide an objective and accurate representation of a student’s ability and help identify actionable areas of need for students and cohorts of all sizes.