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Standardized testing is not the enemy

A student works in an eight grade algebra class at Holy Spirit School in East Greenbush, N.Y. Mike Groll/AP/File/Associated Press

When cognitive psychologists talk about testing, and when the rest of the population uses that word, they mean different things. For educators and parents, testing means standardized testing: a tool wielded by politicians and administrators to terrify children and teachers. When cognitive psychologists hear the word testing, they think immediately of “the testing effect” — one of the best learning strategies. This may seem like semantics, but it’s a problem.

The testing effect is the idea that trying to remember something leads to greater learning than just re-reading information. In one famous experiment, participants tried to learn information from a textbook either by repeatedly re-reading, or repeatedly writing out everything they could remember after reading the information only once. The strategy of writing from memory led to 60 percent correct recall of the material one week later, compared to only 40 percent in the repeated reading condition.


But despite its effectiveness as a learning strategy, the testing effect had to be rebranded to the less scary/more fun-sounding “quizzing” and we have had to come up with more and more subtle ways to produce the effect without students realizing that they are being tested — somewhat akin to hiding broccoli in brownies.

As champions of the testing effect, we find it awkward to hear bemoaning of standardized tests. So, let’s tackle a few of the most common critiques:

Tests cause anxiety

There’s no doubt that challenging, high-stakes tests can provoke anxiety in some students. But, perhaps counterintuitively, the solution to this problem is not to get rid of testing; instead, it is to encourage more testing – particularly frequent, lower-stakes testing. With many tests spread out across the year, each individual test will be worth less and thus necessarily lower stakes; students will become more accustomed to testing, and thus, less afraid of it. What’s more, every time they bring information to mind during a test, students are creating new memories from the cognitive effort involved. So more testing will lead to more learning and could decrease anxiety.


Teachers and parents can also try to redirect some of that anxiety, a tactic that makes students feel more confident and actually perform better on high-stakes tests. Researchers have found one promising method in which students are told that the anxiety they feel before a test is actually helpful – not harmful – to their test performance.

Finally – and this is something that ought to be examined empirically – the negative views of testing repeated by teachers and parents may be feeding into kids’ anxiety and test-aversion. Just like public speaking, tests are an aspect of education that kids tend not to like even though it’s good for them. Our job as parents is to realize that the benefits of testing outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with kids’ complaints.

Teaching to the test

The idea that teaching to a test isn’t really teaching implies an almost astounding assumption that standardized tests are filled with meaningless, ill-thought-out questions on irrelevant or arbitrary information. This may be based on the myth that “teachers in the trenches” are being told what to teach by some “experts” who’ve probably never set foot in a “real” classroom. What these defiant teachers fail to realize – or simply choose to ignore – is that these experts are groups of carefully selected individuals that always include well-seasoned “real classroom teachers”, who guide the decision-making on what material should be assessed by the tests. For those wanting to find out more about how tests are made, here’s an informative video by the Educational Testing Service which develops, administers or scores more than 50 million tests.


Standardized tests are biased

Standardized tests are not the great equalizer that will eliminate discrimination. But it is highly unlikely an individual teacher alone could create a more fair, unbiased test than many experts with access to a lot of resources, a huge amount of diverse data, and the ability to refine tests based on those data. As stated in the ETS video, once a new question is introduced, statisticians work to figure out whether it’s performing equally well for different groups.

Unfair, biased questions are certainly an important ongoing issue for the makers of standardized tests to address, but much work is going into the refinement and improvement of these questions, with the goal of avoiding and, hopefully, eventually eliminating such biases. All individuals have implicit biases that are almost impossible to override, so leaving assessment to individual instructors can only worsen the problem. The crux of the matter is trust – can we trust a board of experts that includes experienced teachers to act in our best interest as a nation of educators, parents, and children? And if the answer is no, then how can we trust individual teachers, and how would we hold them accountable?


Tests don’t provide prompt feedback

Here standardized tests have a lot of room for improvement. Feedback on standardized tests is tardy and often incredibly confusing, and doesn’t include information on which specific questions the student answered incorrectly. By the time it comes, the feedback is just a meaningless score. Although students can learn from tests even without feedback, it is clear that feedback increases the benefits of testing. Tests can be expected to improve on this front as they transition from paper to online, where rapid feedback is more viable on a large scale.

Standardized tests were created to track students’ progress and evaluate schools and teachers. Griping abounds about how these tests are measuring the wrong thing and in the wrong way; but what’s conspicuously absent is any suggestion for how to better measure the effect of education — i.e., learning — on a large scale. In the absence of direct measures of learning, we resort to measures of performance. And the great thing is: measuring this learning actually causes it to grow. So let’s reclaim the word testing, so that the first word that comes to mind when we see it is “effect”.

Yana Weinstein is an assistant professor in the Psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Megan Smith is an assistant professor in the Psychology department at Rhode Island College. They are the co-founders of Learning Scientists (@AceThatTest on Twitter).