As curricula undergo continual changes and improvements, standardized tests remain a staple of the current education model. We persist in issuing these tests, even though each is like a metre stick thrown into the sea, and we hope to measure the ocean’s depth this way. Data from multiple studies (1990, 2005, 2007) confirm the adverse effects of such an approach to education. Why, then, must standardized tests remain the modern student’s inheritance? So begins the standardized testing debate.
The Problem – Ours, Not Theirs
We ought to think of school as an archaeological expedition, one in which books, computers, and teachers are likened to shovels, picks, and brushes for each student to use. These instruments can act as aids to a student’s exploration and help them uncover what they’re looking for. Such tools can’t do the work for the student (a shovel won’t dig by itself!), but, when used properly, they can make the student’s work more productive and enjoyable.
The beauty of an archaeological dig is that you never know what you might find until you start looking. Students, with the freedom to look and wonder, and with the right tools, will make deep and meaningful discoveries within the school environment. But, if ushered in a particular direction at the expense of natural exploration, students will find the importance of those discoveries undermined, if made at all.
This phenomenon of streamlining a student’s learning is known as “teaching to the test”: rather than allotting classroom time for more interesting, complex assignments that promote higher-order thinking, teachers feel pressured to shrink the curriculum for the purpose of teaching students how to perform well on a particular standardized test. In this way, standardized tests erect barricades around the more exciting portions of the dig site, confining students to an already well-dug section. Sure, they’ll find something there, but it’s nothing nobody has seen before. In fact, instead of finding stimulating new insights, they’re more likely to unearth a grim conclusion: school isn’t teaching me anything.
If not the students’, in whose toolkit will you find standardized tests? For whose advantage are they issued? Ours, as adults. In our quest to quantify the unquantifiable, standardized tests are a strong pair of glasses, a well-tuned hearing aid. They allow us a peek into a world we so little understand, giving us something to evaluate and discuss. They provide us with the information needed to make charts comparing the academic skills of students by country. In effect, they turn learning into a competition. And once-eager students are left to watch as their dig sites become racetracks.
F the Test
If you’re a Canadian reader and decided to view the link above, perhaps you felt a tinge of pride at seeing your country ranked so high on the list. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it comes with a notable admission: we as humans are inherently competitive. How much of that we owe to our own schooling experiences is difficult to measure, but the correlation is easy to see.
From a young age, students are taught to view school as a competition. Self-worth becomes a sliding scale from A to F. Report cards are currency with which one can purchase praise or shame, so you’d better get a good one. And at the bottom of it all, lurking in the shadows of the mind, is fear. Fear of being scolded. Fear of being stupid. Fear of being outdone. But outdone by whom? Are we not all here to learn together? Why make comparisons?
Comparison between students finds its origin at a higher level, for the existence of premier schools is predicated on it. Standardized tests such as the SSAT stand as gatekeepers to these premier schools, and students learn to revere them. But their reverence is often born of fear, and fear is no great motivator.
The administrators of the SSAT make no effort to disguise the cutthroat nature of their test. Their website states the following:
- The SSAT is a norm referenced test, which means that a student’s SSAT scores are compared to a hypothetical average student from a norm group consisting of SSAT test takers. The SSAT norm group consists of all first-time test takers over the past three years in the U.S. and Canada.
- This group is highly competitive; a student’s results are compared only with other students of the same grade who are applying to some of the most selective independent schools in the country.
The test-makers directly mention a “hypothetical average student” whose abilities real-life students are meant to match or exceed. Kids are competing against a fictional character! And what’s worse, the test-makers are designing their tests for a fictional student. In doing so, they’re playing Frankenstein and animating a standardized bogeyman for students to fear, one who, like them, is required to take standardized tests, and who might steal their place in the local private school’s admission list if they aren’t careful.
Acknowledging the Benefits of Standardized Testing
Perhaps the above paragraph is a bit dramatic, but the point remains: standardized tests induce undue fear in students. However, the standardized testing debate is not over; it would be irresponsible to present a wholly one-sided argument as has been done thus far. Indeed, there are many potential pros to issuing standardized tests, and from an administrative standpoint, they make sense. For example, here’s the official rationale for British Columbia’s Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA):
- The FSA is designed to indicate how your child and all students in British Columbia are doing in literacy and numeracy.
- The FSA ensures that you, your child, and your child’s teachers and educators have early information on your child’s achievement and can respond appropriately to shape learning over the school year.
The second point introduces an admirable goal, as it suggests that the FSA is meant to be used like a dietary restriction—see how the student reacts to it, and then make according adjustments to personalize their regular diet (their learning journey). This goal, if achieved, serves to enrich the student’s educational experience. But that’s a massive if.
Many standardized tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), do not sympathize with the experiences of individual students. Each participant is a number (their score) and nothing more. Students receive no opportunity to reflect on their performance, nor are they given any sort of acknowledgement by teachers based on their results. Their scores are averaged with those of their compatriots and presented to the global community where adults are the primary audience. This entire procedure is of zero direct benefit to the students taking the test.
We see this problem with British Columbia’s FSA as well. The FSA is conducted at awkward times and in awkward places (often in school hallways), which, in addition to creating a series of stressful situations, steals valuable classroom time away from teachers and their students. When the results come in, parents are able to reflect on how their child has performed, but teachers are very seldom given the tools and resources to support each student in the highly individualized way the FSA advertises. Again, the students derive no direct benefit from the test.
Instead, FSA results are gathered by the Fraser Institute and contribute to their school rankings. With the Fraser Institute’s ranking system, you can find your student’s current school (or your own alma mater, if you’re curious) and see how it compares against all the schools in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Québec. The problem is, these rankings are determined by the school’s FSA scores (in British Columbia) or by other province-specific tests. In other words, schools are being ranked according to their students’ ability to perform well on a standardized test—a test which is designed with someone else’s interests in mind.
Until problems like this one are resolved, the standardized testing debate will rage on. There does exist a world, if only in our minds, in which standardized tests provide to students exactly what their issuers say they will. In that world, students are given personalized learning strategies based on their results, and they find success through those strategies. In our world, we aren’t there yet.
In sum, standardized testing, at least as an idea, is not implicitly awful. However, if we are to continue using standardized tests, we must be honest when identifying whom they benefit most (adults). Since this is contrary to the stated goals of tests like the FSA, we must re-evaluate the design and implementation of standardized tests, enforcing the following stipulation: students, and only students, are to be the beneficiaries.
A World Without Tests
Educational injustice is not likely to end with the reformation or abolition of standardized testing. Standardized tests are among the most egregious offenders, but they are by no means the only culprits. To offer coherent and practicable solutions to the standardized testing debate, we must examine the very foundation on which the education system is built.
With the current model in place, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything differently. We have hundreds of years of evidence that suggests students are learning something in school. But the fact that the school system’s modus operandi has remained almost unchanged since its inception should alarm us. What if today’s doctors suddenly began to practice medicine the way they did 400 years ago? It’s not an unfair comparison; a student’s memories of school stay with them for the rest of their lives, and for some, those memories are damaging.
As mentioned before, students stand to gain immense emotional and intellectual wealth by attending school. But how do we know the current model is maximizing those gains? Well, we don’t. However, we do know this: kids who attend schools famous for helping their students achieve above-average standardized test scores see no noticeable increase in fluid intelligence. Thus, the major downfall of test-based learning is that students become fuel tanks for teachers to fill with information—bolstering their crystallized intelligence—while their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills are not necessarily exercised. And fuel tanks don’t stay filled forever.
Tests in school are effectively written games of call and response. Each question is familiar and prompts the student to remember something, and they either remember it or they don’t. But if students are faced with a problem they’ve never seen before, a problem which can be solved using a novel application of what they’ve learned, their most likely response will be, “This wasn’t in the notes.” These sorts of questions are the essence of project-based learning.
The Joys of Project-Based Learning
Right now, a lot of students don’t take projects seriously—run a search on Google Images for “group project meme” to see what we mean. But the reason students don’t take projects seriously is because students are, in a way, taught to view projects as throwaway tasks. PBLWorks, an organization dedicated to promoting project-based learning in schools, has coined a term for the sorts of projects commonly assigned in school: dessert projects. Per their definition, a dessert project is “a short, intellectually light project served up after the teacher covers the content of a unit in the usual way.” Of course, the usual way involves taking notes, reading the textbook, completing worksheets, and writing a test.
The problem with dessert projects is that they can be effectively ignored by students; due to the way most courses are weighted, projects count for a small fraction of students’ grades. Since students are conditioned to believe that tests are the be-all and end-all of their scholarly lives, they have little to no incentive to do their best work when faced with a project, especially one served up as a dessert project.
To reframe the way students view projects, PBLWorks suggests that students should more regularly engage in “main-course” projects, in which the project is the unit. Learning through the completion of a project allows students to make natural discoveries along the way as they search for the best solution to a profound problem. This ensures that each new bit of information has a specific event attached to it, reinforcing the point in the student’s mind and giving them relevant context as to why it’s important.
The benefits are convincing. For example, fourth-graders who participated in a six-week-long project-based learning experiment were found to have achieved more of the learning outcomes than their peers who participated in regular lessons for the same length of time. On top of that, researchers observed higher levels of motivation in the experimental group, further driving their desire to learn and succeed.
This study is not unique. Another study produced similar results, and it also found that the students who participated in project-based learning were reluctant to go back to the regular classroom model. This is a very important revelation! It shows that the students developed a preference, and not in the same way that most students have a preference for watching movies all day instead of studying. By working on a project, the students still met every expected learning outcome, but they actually enjoyed the process of learning.
This sort of behaviour is prominent in kids who play video games. If they see another player with a piece of in-game equipment they find appealing, they will do everything in their power to figure out how the other player obtained it. Project-based learning gives students an opportunity to indulge in the same sort of self-propelled inquiry inspired by natural discovery. The best part is, it’s self-sustaining; as students learn more and realize all the cool stuff they can do within the context of a given project, they will want to learn more, more, more!
You Are Not Your Test Score
Despite the evidence, it’s unlikely that substantial, main-course projects will become a facet of the curriculum any time soon, especially if it means replacing the current test-based system. Detractors will invariably point to the difficulty of objective grading with a project-based education platform (because it will upend their ranking systems). But there is so little objectivity in the test-based platform we currently use, and we can illustrate the point by examining everyone’s favourite quiz show, Jeopardy.
It’s a remarkable feat to win a game of Jeopardy, let alone 38 in a row as Matt Amodio managed to do in 2021. Amodio is obviously very smart, but he is still human, and humans are capable of succumbing to off days. After having his streak ended, Amodio mentioned he had felt physically unwell during his final game. To viewers, the effects were obvious. Amodio’s results in his final game were not at all a true indication of his actual ability (his performance was so uncharacteristic that many people wondered if he had lost intentionally).
The same can happen, and does happen, to students when faced with tests. Anxiety levels reach all-time highs, and some students end up performing well below their true competencies. And if they perform poorly, they’ve squandered their chance; that singular test score represents the totality of their lived experiences, their highs and lows, their many breakthroughs and milestones leading up to the moment of the test. All the years of a student’s life, wrung from their mind at once and distilled into a few hours’ worth of text on a page. Is this objectivity?
At least Matt Amodio was able to demonstrate his skills during his first 38 games of Jeopardy. However, if he had lost his first game, he would have been removed from the show immediately, having misrepresented himself. A lot of kids suffer a similar misfortune.
Putting a Twist on the Standardized Testing Debate
There’s no perfect solution to the standardized testing debate. But, in the interest of providing the best possible educational experience for students everywhere, we ought to try systems other than the one we’re using now.
For example, instead of considering SSAT scores, private schools could assign a deep, thought-provoking project to each of their prospective students and give them a few months to complete it. This would result in a better approximation of each student’s true ability, as the quality and consistency of their work would be averaged over a longer period of time. Measures would need to be taken to prevent parental interference, among other issues, but it would not be impossible.
Even if we never live to see the full implementation of project-based learning in schools, kids can participate in meaningful, enriching projects outside of school. At Tutoring…With a Twist*, we’ve been putting our own unique twist on project-based learning for years, and we would be thrilled to continue doing so with your child.
Our enthusiastic tutors love taking things beyond the classroom—there’s so much more to learning when you work beyond the textbook! When your child participates in project-based learning with one of our tutors, they’re building valuable life skills that will stay with them forever. Projects can be tied to one subject or many different subjects, and your creativity is the limit.
Also, while it would be great if they didn’t have to, we recognize that your student will have to prepare for tests and exams, and we have the tools to help. With our personalized approach to tutoring, we’ll pinpoint exactly where your child needs assistance the most, and we’ll create a unique learning plan so they can achieve their goals. We can teach the content, develop test-taking strategies, discuss stress-management techniques, and ensure that confidence levels are soaring before the day of the test. SSAT, SAT, FSA—we do it all, and your child can too!
If you’d like to learn more about project-based learning, or if you would like to share your thoughts, leave a comment below or contact us directly. We can’t wait to hear from you!
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