Monday, 18 February 2013

Standardized Testing - An Idea Whose Time Has Come … and Gone?

The Saskatchewan government recently announced that “by the end of 2016, every Saskatchewan student between grades 4 and 12 will take part in yearly provincial standardized assessments.”

Anybody concerned with our children’s schooling would be wise to ask, “Why?”

As the thoughtful editorial in Friday’s StarPhoenix newspaper suggested, the provincial government has to make a better case for why they want every student in grades 4 to 12 to undergo this type of anxiety-creating assessment every year.

For one thing, it seems like the standardized testing craze that arrived so late in Saskatchewan might soon be sent packing elsewhere. B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix, widely expected to soon become premier, has stated that he will change B.C.’s FSA tests for all students in grades 4, 7 and 10 to a random sample test. Even Alberta’s Premier Allison Redford has considered a similar random sampling approach. (I have no problem with the random sampling approach, by the way. It can tell us if certain social groups are falling behind, which is valuable information. And with random sampling, a student is likely to write at most a standardized test once in their schooling career, not nine times, which is what is going to happen if the Sask Party people go through with their plans.)

Educational leaders across the United States are also expressing doubts about the usefulness of these tests. Over 600 schools in Texas passed resolutions in 2012 demanding a reduction in high-stakes testing because they were ineffective. Indeed, the Republican-dominated House of the Texas Legislature put forth a budget for 2014-15 that entirely eliminated all funding for standardized testing. Resistance among educational stakeholders is gaining traction in Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, Virginia and California.

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg is a leading educator in Finland and author of the popular book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? When Sahlberg was recently asked by Tom Shields of the University of Richmond (Virginia) what was the most important educational reform the U.S. could do to improve its school system, he quickly answered, “Eliminate high-stakes standardized testing.”

Why should we listen to a Finnish educator? Because Finland is committed to what Sahlberg calls a “fear free” school system that eschews competition, failure, and yes, standardized testing. The one exception to this is when 16- year old Finns write the OECD PISA exams every three years. Paradoxically, among the 34 countries Finland stands at or near the top each year in all three subjects! Last time in 2009, Finland stood sixth in math, second in science, and third in reading. American students finished 31st, 23rd, and 17th, respectively. Canadian students typically finish much closer to the Finns than to the Americans. Yet the Finns do not subject their children to relentless standardized testing like the Americans and Canadians do. Now that's impressive.

Dr. Sahlberg explained on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition that standardized testing, especially in the elementary years, robs children of their childhood by blocking “imagination and play.” Sahlberg explained that where standardized testing is mandatory, teachers teach to the test and a much narrower curriculum. Students are not taught how to think through complex social problems. Rather, these tests usually measure the transmission and recollection of facts. At best, that’s all they measure.

When high stakes standardized test results are published in newspapers, many negative side effects arise. Schools that do poorly have a significant drop in student and teacher morale. These schools are usually in poor neighbourhoods where resources are not as readily available and social problems are more intense. Further, a Boston College study showed that in order to have higher average test scores, some schools in the U.S. suspend low-scoring students or push them out of school completely.

There is much research that shows the bias in standardized testing favours students who are white and middle class. Is that fair?

Moreover, the intense focus on math, science and reading inevitably leads to less time for the arts, music and physical education. Is this really what we want in our society?

Lastly, many children experience increased anxiety as the standardized testing date gets closer. Is this really what parents want for their children every year for nine years?

It is clear that the moment of euphoria for standardized testing has long disappeared. This is a good thing. It is too bad that no one has mentioned this to the Saskatchewan government.

Note: The Action Canada Task Force just released a report on standardized testing in Ontario (available at It's a very interesting policy piece. Maybe this standardized testing craze can be chased out of the entire country!


  1. While I agree with the almost everything you say, there are some things that I see as misrepresentations of FSAs (which I, as a Grade Seven BC teacher, have just facilitated). The tests are much more than the "transmission and recollection of facts," which, you suggest, is all the tests are at best. Part 1 is multiple choice reading comprehension, done online; part 2 is writing, demonstrating the ability to synthesize thinking between two articles; part 3 is a short essay, demonstrating the ability to put together a well-constructed argument in favor of or against something (usually something to do with views on the environment); and part 4 is a longer essay or story on a selected theme. Again, not really the "transmission and recollection of facts." Math, of course, is not that either; it is an assessment of numeracy skill and problem-solving ability.
    And I do think that focussing on, and practicing, essential writing skills - and comparing exemplars and one's writing with rubrics - can be an effective way to develop basic communication skills.
    That being said, I think I agree with every other point you make. Of course, the results should only be for in-house use - to see weak areas school-wide and to implement improvements in school-wide literacy and numeracy programs. This is exactly what our school did when a few years ago, they identified some weaker areas on writing, and subsequently adopted the "6 + 1 Traits" writing program in order to strengthen those areas.
    So, in my opinion, standardized tests – used sparingly – can be an effective tool. They should not be high stakes – that is, no funding or teacher evaluation should be attached.. They certainly should not be administered every year – as they can and do, indeed, induce stress and suck up student energy. And, especially, there should be no rankings by entities such as the Fraser Institute, and most especially no publishing of these "ratings" of schools in the media, based on FSA results, for the general public to misinterpret!
    What the general public does not often realize are the wide variety of variables that determine outcomes. Obvious socioeconomic factors play a role, of course, but there are other, sometimes simple, factors as well. For example, when our school's Grade 4 class was in the middle of completing the online numeracy test, the power suddenly went out. It took 40 minutes to get the power back on, the server rebooted, and every student logged back in. Within 10 minutes of that, every single student had completed the test (they clearly had lost their concentration and momentum). A simple variable like that obviously is going to skew results, which the school can recognize but others cannot.
    As well, in B.C., teachers of private schools can mark their own students' FSA tests. While many schools cooperate and pool teachers into marking teams so that they do not end up marking their own school's students, some do not and mark their own students - including some schools in the higher levels of the Fraser Institute rankings. Again, one has to wonder about authenticity of such results.

  2. Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. Of course, I agree with all that you have said. Personally, I think that a random sampling approach to some form of standardized testing has some merit. (I think that in this regard Adrian Dix and the BC NDP are bang on with what they plan to do once they form government.)

    I had no idea that teachers in BC's private schools get to mark the FSA students of their own students !!

    This in itself should render the test scores useless.

    I think that someone in the media should point out the hypocrisy of the Fraser Institute for ranking these private schools so high WITHOUT mentioning that some of the teachers in those schools mark their students' tests. It is easy to see how private schools would benefit from "massaging" their students' test scores.

    By the way, in Finland there are no private schools, only public ones.

  3. Essay questions do not guarentee a better test

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  5. Interesting blog and thoughts - and an experience that is similar to that of a B.C. marker - though teachers are used in B.C. (see I guess what you point out is another significant variable in standardized testing outcomes - and why, in my view, their only purpose should be that of being one tool with which a school can assess its literacy and numeracy program.

  6. I agree with you, Brendan. And what's more, essay questions require a marking system that is further removed from being standardized.

    True standardized tests are really the ones that are completely multiple choice, with all the inherent flaws with that model (as pointed out in the blog post above and in myriad studies).

    Marking any other kinds of questions brings in the notion of subjectivity and therefore the "standardized" aspect disappears.

    As the Anonymous poster above stated, private schools bring in subjectivity right away as they have their teachers mark the standardized tests of their own students. Now THAT is quite a self-serving strategy, eh.

    And then the corporate-funded "think" tanks like the Fraser Institute and the prairie version, the Frontier Centre for Social Policy, obtain the test results and rave about the success of the private schools. And the corporate media allow this to happen, even publish their "analysis."

    Days after the test scores are published in local newspapers the private schools lobby for more tax dollars and the cycle of undermining PUBLIC education continues unabated.

    By the way, Finland does not fund private schools. In fact, they barely have any. The Finns believe that going with the "silo" approach to schooling is bad for social cohesion.