The Testing Fallacy

Standardized testing has been a part of education for a long time, even if it was at a smaller scale. You can go back and look at vintage footage of classrooms or gymnasiums with rows and rows of students taking standardized tests on bubble sheets. There are countless arguments against their use and a few arguments in their favor but there is one argument that is rarely discussed and often dismissed. Student motivation.

Every argument for or against testing relies on one (very large) assumption that students try their best and care about the result. For many students that assumption is true. When I was in school I gave my full effort on state assessments but that was because of who I was. I liked getting the results in the mail and seeing scores in the 98th percentile. After teaching for the better part of a decade, I can now say that I was in the minority. One stance against standardized testing is that it forces teachers to teach to the test, and that is absolutely true. Some say that it diminishes creativity and innovation in the classroom and teaches students not to take risks, which is also true. However, even if I strictly teach to the test and we practice every problem that I have ever seen on a state math test, if my students do not care about the result then it’s all moot. They will answer the questions correctly when an answer is readily apparent or they recognize the solution path quickly but if not they will not expend the energy to persevere to solve that problem because it’s easier to just guess.

I do not say these things lightly. This is a manifestation of hours and hours of watching students take standardized tests and talking with them about testing afterward. The greatest insight comes from listening to the students talk among themselves. I hear things like “I had no idea, I just filled in bubbles,” or “I don’t really care, it doesn’t affect my grade.” To be honest, I can’t blame them. While I encourage doing your best at every task, I can’t help but look at the motivating factors (or lack thereof).  What are the consequences of good or bad scores? My teacher will get a better/worse evaluation. My school will get more/less funding. Our school’s name will be higher/lower on a ranking printed in the paper. The federal government will know that my school is teaching me everything I need to know. Which of those reasons would motivate you as a student? Which would motivate your children?

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