Standardized testing is a good thing
By Michael Zwaagstra
If there is one thing virtually all Canadian teachers' unions agree upon, it is that standardized testing is one of the worst things foisted on students.
For example, the British Columbia Teachers' Federation (BCTF) stridently opposes the Foundations Skills Assessment administered to all grades 4 and 7 students in that province. Their opposition is so strong that BCTF even sends letters home to parents letting them know how they can get their children out of writing the assessment. Even though the Foundation Skills Assessment is mandatory for all students, BCTF considers it so harmful they are willing to flout the law in their quest to have it abolished.
However, BCTF and other teachers' unions are simply wrong in their opposition to standardized testing. These tests form an essential component of public education because they provide teachers, parents, and the general public with important information about student academic performance. Without the data provided by standardized tests, policy makers are literally operating in the dark when trying to determine where improvement is needed.
A balanced assessment policy includes both teacher-created assessment and standardized testing. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing balances this with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met. Both teacher-created and standardized measurement tools are needed for a balanced assessment policy.
This is not dissimilar to what happens in other professions. An optometrist, for example, evaluates the eyesight of each patient using both his professional judgment and a standardized eye chart. What would happen to patient care if optometrists decided to stop using standardized eye charts and simply invented their own tools? The answer is obvious. The usefulness of eye exams would decline significantly.
In addition, there are many research studies that demonstrate the benefits of standardized testing on student achievement. In one of these studies, Ludgar Woessman, a professor at the University of Munich, examined data from the 39 countries that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. He found that students in countries with centralized examination systems (standardized testing) significantly outperformed students in countries without these measurement tools in place.
Although teachers' unions feel they have good reasons for their opposition to standardized testing, their arguments do not stand up to scrutiny when examined more closely.
One of the most common arguments against standardized testing is that they cause teachers to teach to the test. However, properly designed standardized tests are closely correlated with the provincial curriculum. As long as teachers are following the mandated curriculum, they are already teaching to the test. If, as some opponents argue, some standardized tests are too narrowly focused on literacy and numeracy skills, the solution is to broaden the scope of the tests, not to abolish them.
Another argument that teachers' unions use is that standardized tests cost too much money. In Ontario, the entire budget of the Education Quality and Accountability Office that designs and administers standardized tests is about $33 million. Total 2011 education spending in Ontario will be more than $23 billion. Thus, standardized testing makes up a grand total of 0.14% of Ontario total education budget. This doesn't seem like an unreasonable amount to pay for a useful measurement tool.
The argument is sometimes made that standardized tests cause students to suffer harmful stress. It is now parroted by Alberta's new premier, Alison Redford. The problem with this argument is it ignores that not all stress is harmful. There is nothing wrong with students feeling some anxiety prior to taking a test. A test provides a challenge, and challenges can cause stress. For virtually all students, a moderate level of anxiety can be a powerful motivator for careful preparation, for reviewing the material, and for practicing their skills. It also helps them focus their attention on the material while they write the formal test.
Standardized testing is an important component of a balanced approach to student assessment. Without the information provided by standardized tests, it becomes virtually impossible to identify accurately how well students are doing. Thus, politicians and governments should resist pressure from teachers' unions to abolish standardized testing. Accurate information about student performance remains essential to providing the best quality education possible.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Manitoba public high school teacher, and co-author of What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.