It is a testing time in our schools. Standardized tests are a terrible way to measure student learning. | Rare Techy


It’s spring across America, and familiar sounds fill the air — early morning birds chirping, the crack of opening day baseball bats, classrooms filled with absolute silence. It’s one of my favorite times of the year as a teacher and parent of elementary school age children.

This past week, I proctored the SAT at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, the high school where I work. At the same time, my daughter was on the last day of a two-week elementary school-required test called the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. This is my 18th year taking the state test in the Chicago area and my first time as a parent of a child.

I’ve written before about the many drawbacks of standardized and multiple-choice-based tests. A body of research has shown that such tests are racially biased, that test anxiety can affect students’ scores, and that very important educational decisions for individuals and schools are made based on the results. Can a student’s scores get them into a certain college? Does this score place a student in a certain class in the next grade?

I was also on the faculty of two high schools in CPS where test score averages were analyzed at every staff meeting and administrators made decisions about curriculum based on school-wide averages. District-wide in CPS, test scores are used as part of a school’s quality rating and in decisions to close schools.

My dislike of standardized and multiple-choice tests is based on two factors: the test format that these tests provide to those who make important decisions about education, and a false sense of security.

First, multiple-choice questions reduce all of our students’ thinking to choosing one correct fill-in-the-bubble answer. Students are not asked to present or explain their thinking. And three out of four answers given are intended to deceive them.

Do these types of questions show a person’s knowledge? Perhaps, but that could be guesswork, misreading, miscalculation, or possibly showing the ability to be fooled. Machines that score tests have no idea.

Yet our country attaches great importance to these tests, and teachers and administrators use them to make decisions about a student’s future and a school’s performance — because scores are a number. Scores are data, something solid and easy.

But as a teacher, I can attest that when we talk about our students’ understanding and learning, we don’t experience it as a number.

Let’s take my background, literacy. I don’t judge my students’ or my own child’s understanding of a text based on a score. I do so through their growth as writers and readers through a conversation, through their explanation through writing or speaking, through multiple teacher-created activities and assessments.

President Joe Biden ran on a campaign promise to stop testing, and during the worst times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the education world took notice. Colleges admit students based on portfolios, videos, transcripts, and interviews. Students in elementary schools spent more time with teachers instead of clicking answers on computers. Our schools didn’t explode—they innovated, using other sources of information to make decisions.

Proponents of testing say the scores help predict college or life success. Yet research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research shows that high school GPAs are better predictors of college success than test scores. We don’t trust grades, however, because our country gives more power to testing companies than it does to them. Our teachers.

Our nation must hand that power over to our teachers. Portfolio-based assessments, student grades, teacher-based tests, interviews, observations, and other classroom experiences can easily take the place of standardized tests. These types of assessments can provide information about our students in far more meaningful ways than standard, multiple-choice assessments—and allow others to see students as human beings, not just numbers.

Gina Caneva is a library media specialist at East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She has taught in CPS for 15 years and is nationally board certified.

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