Standardized tests have pros, cons

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Thoughts on issues relating to Harford County

June 26, 2005

Last week's question: Maryland has set standards that each school must meet to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" on state math and reading tests, as required under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Last week, schools across the state found out whether enough of their students passed standardized tests to meet the standards.

Last year, two Harford County middle schools - Edgewood and Aberdeen - did not meet the standards. Many educators say the tests' role to determine progress may be exaggerated and that other factors, such as grade-point average, should be used to judge improvement.

How important are standardized tests in determining a school's progress? What other factors should be considered when determining improvement?

Teachers can better judge progress

Standardized tests are a good way for students to demonstrate that they can read, write, add, subtract, multiply and divide sufficiently to earn a high school diploma. Taking standardized and even computerized standardized tests prepares students for a future in which these tests routinely measure everything from fitness to drive a car, to licensing in professions such as law, medicine and real estate.

However, standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind Act in Maryland fail to recognize individual student's progress from year to year. According to the Act, unless a student scores well enough to meet the next standardized level on the test, he or she is considered to have improved not at all, regardless of actual improvement in the classroom.

We all know that learning is not only about test preparation and performance. In demanding yearly progress, the Act attempts to take measure of both student and teacher.

Our teachers know their students well. They see their daily triumphs and frustrations. Having our teachers evaluate students in the classroom as a complement to standardized testing would be a better way to accurately gauge yearly progress of student, teacher and teaching method. We must not forget that it is our teachers who help to instill in our children the enjoyment of learning in a process that is often as individual as the child. To discourage this important human interaction by placing all the power in the standardized test discourages learning itself.

Amanda Hanson Havre de Grace

Tests results provide objective information

Standardized tests are crucial to determining how well an individual school is preparing the students entrusted to it for the much larger and more challenging world outside the school's walls.

Transitional studies of special-education students conducted, in part, by the U.S. Department of Education, have shown such a large gap between classroom grades and actual academic performance that reports were issued last summer cautioning parents not to use classroom grades as the only measure of their child's progress.

Classroom grades are subjective teacher-given grades that also take into account homework, attitude, attendance and effort. While these are influential traits to consider, they can obscure skill deficits, which are more accurately measured in objective assessments.

For instance, research has shown that the more serious and more prevalent reading difficulty is not an inability to read words on a page, but an inability to derive meaning, or comprehend, the words you are reading. A student who appears to be able to read the words of a textbook in the classroom but does only mediocre work on assignments [that are] based on the text may be thought to not be putting forth enough effort when actually, the student may not be able to comprehend grade-level text.

No Child Left Behind's AYP categories can help the school target its improvement programs to a particular sub-group. Learning-disabled students, for instance, may need basic skills intervention, while other sub-groups may need a reading program that boosts their vocabulary and prior knowledge.

Standardized tests provide more objective information than report cards for individual student progress, and under No Child Left Behind, standardized tests highlight for the community how many of its children are in danger of being "left behind" when they leave school for a job market that is demanding a higher level of literacy than ever before.

Other factors to include in considering how well a school is preparing students for the world outside the classroom would be drop-out rates, percent of students going on to college and percent who stay in college past the first year, parent involvement and innovative programs to address areas of deficits.

Few people would trust their health to doctors who objected to having to meet medical standards. Education standards protect a child's right to learn to read and learn to succeed, regardless of their address, their parents' socio-economic status or any other roadblocks to learning. Particularly in the absence of competition from school choice, standardized tests are a way to ensure change and progress.

Carolyn Stepnitz

Conowingo

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