Do Standardized Tests Measure Up?

Waslala Miranda |

The House Committee on Education is considering two bills that could change how student performance is measured in public education:

  • House Bill 168 (Rep. Tobash, R-Schuylkill) would decrease the number of Keystone Exams from 10 subject areas to three—Algebra I, literature, and biology—and would prevent the state from requiring high school seniors to pass a standardized state exam to graduate.
  • House Bill 177 (Rep. Grove, R-York) would establish the Academic Standards Commission to review current core standards and requirements and make recommendations to improve or even replace the current system.

Several people testified before the committee, representing various viewpoints from business leaders and school board members to educators.  They disagreed on the best way to measure proficiency and help students improve.

The speakers testifying largely split into two groups: those favoring state standardized testing, including the Business Council and the State Board of Education; and those opposed to it, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), all representing officials and employees responsible for education at the local level.

H.B. 177 drew the support of two of the three local educator groups. PASA supported it with “strong caution” against changing state standards again, and PSBA supported it to help increase public review of state standards. The major point of contention was H.B. 168 and state standardized testing in general.

Those in favor of state standardized testing and exit exams believe these methods are the best way to ensure that graduates are prepared for postsecondary education and can earn a good living. However, according to the PSBA, there is no proof that state standardized exams or graduation requirements accomplish that.

The PSBA highlighted research that showed high-stakes standardized testing:

  • failed to prepare students for either college or career success.  Testing does not increase college enrollment nor is it linked to better employment or higher wages.
  • increased dropout rates.  Exit exams increased the dropout rate of 12th-graders by 11%; for vulnerable students, it is even higher. (Their graduation rate dropped by two entire percentage points.)
  • whittled down the curriculum.  Teaching to the test narrows the curriculum, resulting in whole subjects and extracurricular activities being dropped.  Skills that cannot be tested but remain important in college and beyond—such as writing research papers, public speaking, or conducting laboratory experiments—are also dropped.  This is especially true for low-income students.

Furthermore, standardized testing does not measure school or teacher effectivenessThe Center for Evaluation and Educational Policy Analysis (CEEPA) finds that School Performance Profile (SPP) scores, which are based on state standardized exams, do not “accurately identify school effectiveness” nor should they be used to evaluate teachers.  Instead, they’re strongly linked to the socioeconomic background of the students and the school district—something beyond teacher and district control. To begin to see how effective schools and teachers actually are, SPP scores would have to be adjusted for these socioeconomic factors.  Even then, any comparison should be done with caution.

According to the PSEA, legislators must focus on socioeconomic factors to improve public education for all.  The concerns raised by local educators echoed what several New York State Teachers of the Year recently wrote in a letter to Governor Cuomo:

“Merit pay, charter schools and increased scrutiny of teachers won’t work because they fundamentally misdiagnose the problem. It’s not that teachers or schools are horrible. Rather, the problem is that students with an achievement gap also have an income gap, a health-care gap, a housing gap, a family gap and a safety gap, just to name a few. If we truly want to improve educational outcomes, these are the real issues that must be addressed.”