Bless the tests: Three reasons for standardized testing

A torrent of complaints has been levelled against testing in recent months. Some of the criticism is associated with the PARCC exams, Ohio’s new English and math assessments for grades 3–8 and high school. The grumbling over testing isn’t a brand new phenomenon. In fact, it’s worth noting that in 2004, Ohioans were grousing about the OGTs! In the face of the latest iteration of the testing backlash, we should remember why standardized tests are essential. The key reasons, as I see them, are objectivity, comparability, and accountability.

Reason 1: Objectivity

At their core, standardized exams are designed to be objective measures. They assess students based on a similar set of questions, are given under nearly identical testing conditions, and are graded by a machine or blind reviewer. They are intended to provide an accurate, unfiltered measure of what a student knows.

Now, some have argued that teachers’ grades are sufficient. But the reality is that teacher grading practices can be wildly uneven across schools—and even within them. For instance, one math teacher might be an extraordinarily lenient grader, while another might be brutally hard: Getting an A means something very different. Teacher grading can be subjective in other ways, including favoritism towards certain students, and it can find its basis in non-achievement factors like classroom behavior, participation, or attendance.

But when students take a standardized exam, a much clearer view of academic mastery emerges. So while standardized exams are not intended to (and should not) replace the teacher grade book, they do provide an objective, “summative” assessment of student achievement. Standardized assessments of achievement can be used for comparison and accountability purposes, both of which are discussed in turn.

Reason 2: Comparability

The very objectivity of standardized exams yields comparability of student achievement, a desirable feature for parents and practitioners alike. Most parents, for example, would like to know whether their child is meeting state benchmarks, or how she compares to statewide peers. Statewide standardized exams give parents this important information. Meanwhile, school-shopping parents have every right to inspect and compare the standardized test results from a range of schools, including charters, district schools, and STEM schools, before selecting a school for their child.

School practitioners also use statewide test results to benchmark their students’ achievement across school and district lines. For instance, the principal of East Elementary could compare the achievement of her students against those attending West Elementary, the district average, the county average, and the statewide average. How do her students stack up? Only a statewide standardized test could tell.

Interestingly, proposals have been floated to allow schools to select their own assessment—a pick-your-own-assessment policy. This is a flawed idea and should be rejected. It would undermine the comparability principle of statewide testing.

First, to be clear, standardized exams are not the all the same. Consider an obvious example: Ohio’s old state tests and the PARCC exams are both standardized exams, yet they are as different as night and day. Meantime, a pick-your-own-assessment policy would open a Pandora’s box of confusion over how to interpret the results. Imagine that Columbus City Schools selects NWEA as its testing vendor and reports an 80 percent proficiency rate. Now let’s say Worthington City Schools (suburban Columbus) selects PARCC and reports a 50 percent proficiency rate. Should we infer that Columbus students are actually achieving at higher levels than Worthington? Or is the test just different? Based solely on these test data, we’d have no clue.

State assessment policy should not amount to a Choose Your Own Adventure for districts and schools. Instead, Ohio legislators must continue to implement a single, coherent system of standardized exams that provides comparable results.

Reason 3: Accountability

Like it or not, standardized exam data remain the best way to hold schools accountable for their academic performance. To its great credit, Ohio is implementing a cutting-edge school accountability system. The accountability metrics include robust measures often referred to as “student growth” or “value-added” measures, along with conventional proficiency results and college-admissions results. All of these outcome measures are based on standardized test results.

The information from these accountability measures enables policymakers to identify the schools that need intervention, up to closure. For example, the charter school automatic closure law uses state exam results—both school-level value added and proficiency—to determine which schools must close. In addition, districts can go into state oversight via the Academic Distress Commission if they are low-performing along test-based outcomes. Another use of standardized testing data is coming in the area of deregulation. One priority bill being considered in the Senate (SB 3) would give “high-performing” districts certain flexibilities and freedoms from state mandates. How are these high performers identified? Answer: Through state accountability measures, based on standardized test scores. 

Outside of standardized test results, no objective method exists for policymakers to identify either poor-performing schools needing intervention or high-performing schools deserving rewards. Consider the alternative: Who would want policymakers to intervene in a school based on their “gut feeling” or reward a school based on anecdotes? Statewide standardized exams are essential for upholding a fair and objective accountability system.

In a utopian world, one could wish away standardized tests. All schools would be great, and every student would be meeting their potential. But we live in reality. There are good schools and rotten ones; there are high-flying students and pupils who struggle mightily. We need hard, objective information on school and student performance, and the best available evidence comes from standardized tests. Policymakers need to be careful not to undermine the integrity of the state’s standardized tests. 

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.