Standardised testing is bad, but what is the alternative?

Spent yesterday playing cricket in the local competition. A first step in returning to a “normal” life. As it happens one of the guys I was playing with – and have known for a long time – is also a Deputy Principal at one of the local primary schools. He asked if I was still working at the Uni and I explained no, I was heading into high school teaching. From there the discussion turned to teaching and its issues and benefits. Before too long I asked about NAPLAN testing and its impact. “It’s all we’re teaching at the moment”, was the response, essentially much the same as I I mentioned in a previous post.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve been listening to and reading a lot of K12 education related material. All of it, especially that by folk with first-hand knowledge of actual teaching, has been aware of the negative implications of standardised testing, especially when tied to rankings or funding. It corrupts the teaching process and becomes the almost primary focus of learning. At the core, this seems to be a wonderful example of Goodhart’s law which Wikipedia describes as

states that once a social or economic indicator or other surrogate measure is made a target for the purpose of conducting social or economic policy, then it will lose the information content that would qualify it to play such a role

It is obvious that school performance on the NAPLAN test has become a target. School’s and teachers are being told by regional management to focus on improving performance on that target. Consequently, I believe that NAPLAN test scores have lost any value, the information content in such scores does not represent the quality of education. It represents how well the educators have been able to prime students for the test. More importantly, it fails to measure what has been lost in the chase for good NAPLAN scores.

What is the alternative

The idea of standardised testing, like the NAPLAN tests, arise from the idea of managerialisation which is seen by some as a key component of globalisation. It is the idea that it is important for government to measure and assure the quality of services like education. Measurement that requires objective, quantifiable measures. It is unlikely that this requirement for measurement is going to disappear anytime soon.

Given, as described above, that I believe the current approach to this measurement is having extremely negative effects on what it is trying to measure. Then the question is, what are the alternatives? Is there a way to provide government and society with the “measurement” that shows the quality of the education being provided to children?

Surely there has to be some folk within the educational research community coming up with alternatives? Even some folk trying them out in real education settings.

This is not a problem limited to K12 education. Universities, especially those in Australia, are increasingly having to deal with this problem and they aren’t doing it any better.

This is likely to become one of my underlying questions for the next year or so.

6 thoughts on “Standardised testing is bad, but what is the alternative?

  1. We can start the reforming standardized testing by making it #Non-Standard. The human brain is a not machine with interchangeable parts. We have realized years ago that students have different and unique learning styles i.e. Kinestetic, Visual, Audio, etc. If students do not learn the same, why would we ever expect them to assess the same. The current system of Standardized testing eliminates highly intelligent students that could become doctors, engineers, architects, astronauts, etc…. A couple of years ago, I taught an inclusion class. Half of the students were labeled LD (Learning Disability). However, one of the students built a house for his senior project. A real house. My AP (advanced placement) students read and write about the building of the house, but they can’t build a house. So who really has a higher level of intelligence? Whenever I receive paper work on a student who is labeled “LD”, that interpret that as “Learn Differently.” Let’s Non-Standardize, Standardize testing and assess students according to their talents and learning styles.

    1. I agree with the point about learning/learners not being standardised and that assessment should show that.

      Playing devil’s advocate a touch, however, suggests that given acceptance that managerialisation/globalisation aren’t going to go away there is still going to be a requirement to show “value for money” for the money (private or public) going into education. Not to mention doing so in ways the seem objective, efficient and effective.

      How do you combine the two aims?

      I have some vague ideas, but I’m sure it’s not a simple task.

      I don’t think it’s possible to ignore the motivations behind standardised testing, just as much as I don’t think it’s advisable that we ignore the problems that it brings.

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