Don’t throw out standardized student testing – make it better

Courtesy: Granada Hills ChartererStudents learn about polynomials in Janie Dam’s Algebra 2 class.

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The overtesting of students has become increasingly one of the political battlefields in our public school system.

It sat among the five concerns listed on the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ Beyond Recovery Platform. Yet as reported by EdSource recently, we have a clearer understanding of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students’ academic progress thanks to California Smarter Balanced and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized test scores. The alarming drops in both math and English language arts performance reinforce the importance of having objective student data available to clearly identify the gaps in learning that need to be closed.

Standardized tests have been with us for thousands of years. The first recorded occurrence can be found in ancient civil servant selection, as early as 2200 BC Among things candidates for government jobs were mandated to demonstrate was proficiency in archery. Applicants were handed three arrows to shoot at a human-sized and shaped object while riding on horseback. If all three arrows hit the target, a perfect score was earned; two reaching the target was graded as good; and if only one arrow met the target, it was a pass.

For the past century, standardized testing in the United States came in the form of hours-long multiple choice and essay exams, which could be just as arduous (and with acceptance to college primarily riding on the scores, perhaps just as gruesome). We have now come to recognize that these high-stakes evaluations have fundamental flaws: gender, wealth, and racial biases and the subversion of results through expensive prep courses that un-level the playing field; even parent-funded cheating.

Newcomers to the country tend to start conversing in English before they learn to write in the language, but standardized testing for the most part does not come in a voice response format except for the language exams themselves. The inability to provide equitable access to high schoolers with special needs during the pandemic led to court cases and fast-tracked a movement away from College Board examination that was clearly coming and in many cases clearly needed. Many colleges and universities, including the University of California system, are jettisoning both the SAT and the ACT as admissions requirements.

But this evolution leaves us with some unavoidable questions: What lies ahead for data collection to track state and national progress toward a better-educated workforce? Should all standardized testing be discarded in the fight against unhealthy overtesting and high-stakes pitfalls that we’ve come to understand? There are projections of a shortage in America of millions of highly educated and skilled workers, and global economic competition is likely to continue its steady rise. It would be foolish to deprive ourselves of a consistent means to gauge how our education system is serving our young people — and by extension us all.

The answer to student overtesting is not to throw out all standardized tests, but rather, to streamline and enhance the assessment process.

The onsite Smarter Balanced (or an equivalent) should be able to stand alone as an instrument to meaningfully measure both capacity for higher education and future employability, whether via college attendance or vocational training. This action also serves to eliminate ancillary exam costs for students and parents who cannot afford them, thus closing the divide between families who have and those who do not. Transportation and access would be much less of an obstacle when the test site is the school site and testing is conducted during school hours.

Fortunately, advanced education technology such as classroom robots can now make standardized assessments more feasible for both teachers and homeschooling parents. In addition to data-driven machine learning that leads to greater precision and accuracy, artificial intelligence is not burdened by emotions. Interactive assistive technologies have unlimited patience as they don’t experience frustration like human teachers and parents do, such as when children either don’t listen or don’t understand, and may need the same directions repeated many times over; or when grading becomes too tedious and time-consuming.

Machines can be coded to not base scoring on the test taker’s gender, race, ethnicity, physical appearance, spoken accent, etc. They can be built to speak and comprehend multiple world languages, display visuals and glossaries, go from text to speech and back.

But the most important key here is to design test questions and formats as a component of multicultural teaching that celebrates diversity, whether for use on a school campus or at home. The aim should be scaled up test item banks and differentiated, equitable rating protocols to evaluate performance, both of which appropriately reflect the student’s cultural and linguistic background. And that, too, is more doable with the help of artificial intelligence. Indeed, such personalization will pave the way for every child to benefit from an individualized education program, not just kids identified for special education.

Not that anyone would or should want TikTok to dictate their future, but before you scoff, think about it like this: if TikTok can accurately predict which images, songs, videos you will like the most, why can’t algorithms similar to those that power TikTok potentially be relied on to forecast which job tasks and therefore which jobs you might enjoy the most and be most motivated to excel at, and then suggest, but leave it up to you, to select a corresponding course of study.


Janie Dam, is a math teacher and for 13 years has been the school wide testing and data coordinator at Granada Hills Charter in Los Angeles. She has been a professional educator since 2000 and is a member of United Teachers of Los Angeles.

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