The Danger of Using Tests to Measure Success

A school board member's testing philosophy changed after he took the standardized tests for his district's 10th graders—and did miserably.

In our standardized test-heavy education world, it’s commonplace for schools, teachers, and students to be labeled as succeeding or failing based on scores. But a piece in this week’s Washington Post by educator Marion Brady spotlights the dangers of going too far with how we use tests to measure success.

Brady recounted the tale of an anonymous friend who’s "on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America" and decided to see what it’s like to take the standardized tests that 10th graders in his district are required to take and pass. He told Brady that he only scored in the 62nd percentile on the reading test, and on the math section, he got a dismal 10 out of 60 questions correct."

Of course, most college-educated adults wouldn't do too well on the math section of the standardized tests secondary students take unless they’re employed in a field that regularly uses algebra and geometry. If you don't use it, you lose it, which is why people headed to business school sign up for those pricey GMAT prep classes—they need time to review concepts.

But, what’s concerning is that in the friend's school district, as in many others, those kind of scores would put a student on a remedial track. It's well known that tracking students into lower math classes is a surefire way to see that a student has no access to high quality, critical thinking-centered math instruction. The drill-and-kill nature of remedial classes is a way to ensure that students will never move out of the "low" group. "If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader," the friend wrote to Brady in an email, "my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material’."

Fortunately, Brady’s friend grew up in an era when standardized testing didn’t rule education, so no one thought he was merely the sum of his test scores. He went on to earn "a bachelor of science degree, two master’s degrees and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate" and he now runs an organization with 22,000 employees and $3 billion in operations.

Now the friend is wondering about his responsibilities as a school board member, calling a wholesale embrace of the way tests are being used in his district "ethically questionable." Indeed, if more of the adults making decisions about how tests are used in schools actually had to take them, maybe there'd be less eagerness to make scores the end-all, be-all of learning.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Casey Serin.

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