Higher Marks

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The American public supports high standards and testing. Parents want to know how well their children are doing academically—compared with other children their age, and in light of school standards. Taxpayers want to know if the money they pay for public schools is well spent. They would like to be assured that today’s youth are getting the education they need to attain the prosperity of earlier generations.

Over the past four decades, more than two hundred public opinion polls compiled by Richard Phelps have consistently shown that the public strongly supports standardized tests. A high percentage of respondents endorse their use to measure educational goals and ensure that high school graduates have acquired the knowledge and skills they need for further education and adult life.

In another study, when respondents were asked to identify the top priorities for 2010, 65 percent of the public named education. Such findings offer strong evidence that the public is in favor of raising standards for American schools and using standardized tests to measure student and teacher progress.

Moreover, although educators might suggest that students are intimidated or anxious about taking standardized tests, strong evidence suggests that students prefer academic rigor. Many agree with the views that schools are lax, should raise their standards, and could do a better job holding students accountable for their performance. As revealed by national surveys, three-fourths of high school students believe that stiffer examination and graduation requirements would make students pay more attention to their studies. Students agree with research findings that suggest these accountability measures raise achievement levels.

Students want to receive credit for their academic efforts. They feel that their achievements would be tainted if diplomas were granted to unqualified students. In a random sample of high school students, three-fourths of the respondents said schools should promote only individuals who master the material. Standardized tests, of course, would be necessary for objective, efficient assessments of such mastery.

When considering the statement “the classes are challenging,” seven in ten principals and five in ten teachers agreed, but only two in ten students did.

Students also offered reasonable advice for how they might attain such mastery. Nearly 67 percent of the respondents said students would learn more if they tried harder. About eight in ten respondents said students would learn more if schools made sure everyone was on time and completed all the homework. More than seven in ten said schools should require after-school classes for anyone earning Ds or Fs.

Students are not recommending that educational standards be lowered or that standardized testing programs be eliminated. They seem to understand the importance of their own and others’ learning.


American educators are among the most severe critics of standards and testing programs. Even amid poor test outcomes, they maintain that public schools have high standards and are delivering acceptable academic results. For example, in response to the statement “the school has high academic standards,” seven in ten principals and six in ten teachers agreed. Yet only four in ten students were convinced that high standards were being upheld in their school.

When considering the statement “the classes are challenging,” seven in ten principals and five in ten teachers agreed, but only two in ten students held such positive beliefs about their educational experiences. Their views obviously differ greatly from those of the public and students.

Similarly, education professors who prepare aspiring and current teachers and administrators report opinions sharply different from those of the public and students. In national surveys, 78 percent of the faculty in colleges of education said they would like to see less reliance on multiple-choice examinations. Only 24 percent believed it is “absolutely essential” to produce “teachers who understand how to work with the state’s standards, tests, and accountability systems.”

When exams and courses are uniform, teachers can concentrate on how to teach—not what to teach.

Their course outlines, reading assignments, and grading rubrics show indifference and even hostility toward using specific course objectives and measuring student outcomes. Despite the vast literature on the benefits of testing on learning, educators and especially the “educators of educators” generally do not support testing and standards. Their attitude aligns with some of the commonly held fallacies about standardized testing, which will be cited in a moment.

The benefits of testing far outweigh any disadvantages. Largely ignored by test critics and some educators are hundreds of well-designed studies, complete with comparison groups, showing these benefits. This voluminous research has been conveniently compiled in reviews of the research literature and statistical analysis of findings across multiple studies (“meta-analysis”). The conclusions are as follows:

  • Setting unambiguous goals and measuring progress substantially increase student motivation and performance in learning, sports, and work settings.
  • In K–12 and college classes, testing as often as weekly or daily promotes frequent preparation, which leads to increased learning. (Teaching students to frequently assess their own progress is an ultimate goal.)
  • Giving students detailed test results helps them spot their weaknesses, increases their learning, and reduces the potential for overconfidence.
  • Learning is reinforced and enhanced by offering students details on what they have done well.
  • Using tests to verify that students have mastered or nearly mastered specific content before introducing new material yields better results than teaching that ignores students’ mastery levels.
  • When studies focus on language learning, frequent testing has intensified and increased the speed with which students learn new languages.

In addition to the comparison-group studies largely by psychologists, large, statistically controlled studies of states and nations show that on average, students who are required to pass standards- or curriculum-based examinations perform better than students who do not.

Such tests cover uniform subject matter in humanities, sciences, and other fields. The tests are graded by educators other than the students’ own teachers, and students have little incentive to challenge their teachers about course content and standards. Rather, the students and teachers work together toward their joint goal of meeting standards, and often the stakes are high: graduation and university admission. Because the exams and courses are uniform, teachers can concentrate on how to teach—not what to teach. Knowing the subject matter in previous grades, teachers build upon what students have previously been taught.

Students prefer academic rigor. Many agree that schools are lax, should raise their standards, and could do a better job holding students accountable.

Given all these findings, the benefits of testing appear to be as well established empirically as any principle in the social sciences.

In 2003, Ludger Woessmann of the Institute of World Economics carried out perhaps the largest and most sophisticated causal analysis of national achievement. Using data from thirty-nine countries that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, he found that students in rich and poor nations learned the most when their countries employed external, curriculum-based examinations.


Gregory Cizek, writing in Defending Standardized Testing (Richard P. Phelps, ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005), points out several frequent but fallacious criticisms of standardized tests. Despite their lack of foundation, these ideas are repeated so often that they deserve to be considered and rebutted.

Fallacy number one: testing consumes valuable time that would otherwise be used for instruction.

Testing is part of instruction, not separate from it. Lectures, discussion activities, and assigned readings are useful. However, teachers must determine if the students have actually learned course material and proceed accordingly to reteach or move on. Frequent, even daily, testing encourages students to be prepared for each class rather than “cramming” easily forgotten information after infrequent tests. When tests match curricular standards, they reinforce students’ learning by requiring them to think through and practice material they have completely or partially learned.

Two comparative studies conducted by John Bishop of Cornell University provide evidence of the instructional value of standardized tests. In one study, Bishop found that countries requiring students to take nationally standardized tests showed higher test scores on international tests than students in countries not requiring such tests.

In a second study, Bishop found that U.S. students who anticipated having to pass an examination for high school graduation learned more science and math, were more likely to complete homework and talk with their parents about schoolwork, and watched less television than their peers who were not required to pass such exams. Students concentrated on meeting standards and monitoring their own time and progress—skills important for not only increased achievement but also increased success in life.

Fallacy number two: testing programs consume sizable financial resources that would otherwise be used for instruction.

Standardized tests are not only effective but cost-efficient. They represent only a minuscule percentage of K–12 expenditures. Hoover senior fellow Caroline Hoxby found that in 2000, $234 million went to commercial firms for services including standardized testing, standards setting, and accountability reporting. This amount was less than 0.1 percent of total spending on K–12 education and amounted to an average of only $5.81 per student. Across the twenty-five states with available information, the total cost per student was between $1.79 and $34.02.

It is true, however, that states and school districts have paid steadily and substantially more over the past decade to devise their own tests. But lacking test and testing expertise, they have poor records of test effectiveness and cost-efficiency. Backed by long records of experience and success in the marketplace, commercial tests are more objective and reliable than the tests that states and smaller localities have commissioned.

In addition, well-made commercial tests can yield excellent diagnostic results in improving achievement by identifying student strengths and weaknesses. Commercial tests, moreover, are increasingly administered by computer, and their costs can be expected to continue declining.

Fallacy number three: content not covered by tests is neglected.

It is true that holding educators accountable for only mathematics and language arts may lead them to neglect history and science. But this point is an argument for comprehensive and systematic testing across the entire curriculum. Responsible test-makers, moreover, do not purport to cover all the material students are expected to learn. Tests sample only a small fraction, perhaps as little as 5–10 percent, of all the content and skills.

Just as a national survey may interview a few tenths of a percent of the population, a fifty-minute multiple-choice test of perhaps fifty items provides a good estimate of a student’s overall achievement. Like a national survey designed to sample various parts of the country, moreover, a standardized test can sample the multiple topics students are expected to learn. Thus, such tests can sample far more content than a few essay questions.

Fallacy number four: tests overemphasize factual knowledge and low-level skills.

Well-designed standardized tests can measure knowledge, understanding, application of ideas, and other high-level skills. Designers can use single items with a clear, correct answer to assess lower-level skills. They also can combine items and ask respondents to select the best answer when assessing complex knowledge. Tests assessing complex achievement require respondents to select the best idea from a group of different and compelling positions and require respondents to identify the best reason for action, the best interpretation of a set of ideas, or the best application of important principles. (Rather than the word “correct,” “best” is advisable because more than one answer may be correct to some degree.)

Whereas tests emphasizing single, correct answers are common for students in early grades or who are new to an area of study, a wider range of items requiring interpretation is found on more advanced tests. K–12 students who practice demonstrating their knowledge and skills on standardized tests throughout their school career become better prepared to meet future educational, occupational, and professional goals. They are ready for the standardized tests used for admission to selective colleges and graduate and professional schools. In addition, K–12 students are prepared for tests required for occupational licensing for trades as well as for intellectually demanding professions such as law and medicine.

Fallacy number five: testing places excessive pressure on students.

The world outside school is demanding. The knowledge economy increasingly demands more knowledge and higher skills of workers, requiring larger amounts of intense study of difficult subjects. Yet American students spend only about half the total study time of Asian students in regular schools, in tutoring schools, and on homework. Thus, some pressure is advisable for the future welfare of the students and the nation.

When students can see their progress toward standards, they may find that incremental progress motivates them and pressure is more manageable. Practice enhances their performance, as in games and sports. Testing programs allow educators to accommodate their curriculum to better meet the needs of students with different achievement levels, giving special help to those who fall behind and accelerating or enriching learning for advanced students.

Fallacy number six: testing fosters malaise among all teachers.

Good schools focus on student learning, not on the satisfaction of the professional staff. If data show that testing benefits students, it should be pursued even if teachers decline to offer unanimous support. But professionals should take pride in seeing good results from their work—and because testing reveals good work and aids rather than detracts from instruction, teachers should embrace it.

Many teachers are unfamiliar with why testing is necessary and how good tests are designed and administered. Often, a teacher’s opposition is based on an experience in which the test was poorly designed, not aligned with the curriculum, or in some other way incorrectly administered. Professional development programs that include guidance on how to align classroom activities with achievement standards are one solution. Teachers can also learn to see the shortcomings of tests they designed, and thus how to devise better tests.

Good student performance on tests should be a source of satisfaction for teachers. For schools as a whole, the appropriate tests are a reliable gauge of strengths and weaknesses, pointing the way toward improvements in curriculum, teaching, and learning.