Why Test?

Why Test?

By: Kristin Lehman

For many learners, testing is like a trip to the dentist… possibly necessary, but painful and unwanted. Subject and unit tests are bad enough, but standardized testing (along with its high-stake, life-time ramifications) can take this angst to a whole new level.

Historically, standardized testing in the Western world was developed during the time of the industrial revolution. As companies were looking for assembly line workers, schools also began their quest to educate young minds. In an attempt to make sure everyone had access to a good education, teachers followed the worldview of the day and grouped all students with similar “manufacture dates” (otherwise known as birth dates) into the same classes. With large numbers of students needing to be quickly assessed, standardized testing grew in popularity. 

As our world moved from the age of industrialization to one of information, problems with the standardized testing approach became quickly evident. Test anxiety is a real and documented barrier for many students. Research has found that there is a significant relationship between levels of test anxiety and a change in scores. Among other issues is the fact that there are many abilities necessary for a well-rounded and successful life which cannot be graded or assessed on a standardized exam. A test does not yet exist that can accurately quantify skills like creativity or divergent thinking. Children are not assembly line products and therefore should not be treated as such. Each one has different strengths and weaknesses, gifts and barriers, experiences and knowledge base.

If there are so many issues with standardized testing, then why test at all? What is the reasoning behind why states require such an activity? How does implementing standardized testing serve your students? Many homeschooling parents reason that they teach their child every day and know how much their child has learned. Why then is another test needed to tell what is already known? These are fair questions.

Tests, whether given frequently or yearly, are a tool used to identify strengths and weaknesses in each unique learner. These assessments can not only identify holes in student understanding but also corresponding gaps in curriculums. These assessments can include written evaluations, checklists, portfolios, charts, or standardized tests. While testing cannot assess soft skills as well as some other methods of evaluation, it does highlight where a student has been, what they know now as well as where they need to grow. Keeping in mind that every student is unique, and that while the individual student’s growth from year to year should be the primary focus, it is also beneficial to examine where a learner is in comparison with their peers. Standardized testing does this by putting a student’s skills into a bigger picture of a larger (nation-wide) population. This can give insight to the teacher/parent for planning future lessons and possibly even help the student fill in their own holes as they grow into functioning members of our society.

Finding the appropriate assessment tool to give the needed feedback is a challenge. There are several questions you want to ask as you look for the right test:

  • Does my learner struggle with test anxiety?
    • Most students benefit from untimed tests, though students with learning disabilities or test anxiety see the greatest benefit. You may want to consider the untimed options. 
  • What if my student is not “on-grade” in every subject?
    • Almost all standardized tests use the same questions for all students in a specific grade level. However, students can be behind in every subject, ahead in one subject while behind in another, or ahead in all subjects. Students who are tested at a level beyond their capabilities often get frustrated and give up. The test then does not  give a clear picture of the student’s abilities. Likewise, when students take a test that is too easy for them, they do not get a chance to show their true abilities. You may want to look for an option that groups learners based on abilities or levels in each subject, rather than by grade/age. This would likely include a pre-test of some sort to assure the student is taking the appropriate test. 
  • Does my student do better with paper and pen or computer?
    • Studies are still underway, but at least one has found that students who take a test on paper do significantly better than those who take it on a computer.
  • Where is my child most comfortable?
    • Research has shown that students encode information from their environment as they learn new material. This means that it is easier to recall information if you test in an environment similar to where you learn.  Some tests require the student to take the test in the presence of a certified proctor. Others allow parents to test students in the familiarity of their own home. 
  • How fast do I need the results?
    • Online tests often get results back to you quicker than traditional paper and pencil tests. 

Ultimately, you want to choose the test or assessment that fits your family the best. 

Note: the author, Kristin Lehman, is the Director of Educational Services at Hewitt Learning.

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