The Pros and Cons of Using Standardized Tests

In 1996, the Ontario government enacted legislation requiring all students in grades 3, 6, and 9 in the province of Ontario to take mandatory standardized tests in reading, writing and math. The Ministry of Education uses these yearly tests to increase the quality of education in Ontario and to plan for future improvements. Each year the government spends $32 million to administer the tests and an additional $77 million to improve future test scores. While there is no merit pay connected to improved test scores in Ontario, schools feel a heavy pressure to continually improve their results.

Since the introduction of the tests, Ontario has had a great deal to celebrate. High school graduation rates have improved and the gap between students receiving special education supports and other students has been reduced. The results of immigrants who don’t speak English when they arrive in Ontario have also risen rapidly. The number of low-performing schools in the province has been reduced significantly and the overall performance of the almost 5,000 schools in the province has radically improved in reading and writing.

Since the introduction of the tests, Ontario also has a great deal not to celebrate. While elementary reading and writing scores have climbed, math scores have not. In fact, the overall performance in math has consistently and significantly declined for the past five years. There’s also a growing slippage between students in Grades 3 and 6; nineteen percent of students who met the standard of 75 percent in grade 3 did not meet it in Grade 6. Ontario’s math performance is on the decline as compared to other countries too; the overall average math score has decreased steadily by 16 points over the past nine years. These results come from the 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores.

Some blame an underlying societal attitude for Ontario’s decreasing math scores, an attitude that says some students are good at math while others aren’t. Others say teachers aren’t as comfortable teaching math as they are teaching reading and writing. Others wonder if the declining math scores are the price Ontario has paid for a heavy emphasis by schools to drive up their reading and writing scores. Whether or not the latter is true, it begs an important question.

Has anything else suffered because of the push for improved test scores?

Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity, and innovation says when we focus too much on test scores we ignore the development of important things like creativity, innovation, imagination, curiosity and effort.

These are required skills for our unknowable future and standardized tests measure none of them. Robinson says our “fast food” model of standardized education impoverishes the spirits and energies of our children. He believes that our current industrial educational model, based on conformity, needs to be replaced with a model using agricultural principles, where we create conditions under which children flourish through personalized, and not standardized, curriculum. Robinson says that we are still “hypnotized” by many of the ideas that were formed in previous centuries and standardized testing is one of them.

Standardized tests were first used in China. They were designed to help the state select the best candidates to work for the bureaucracy as administrative officials. Standardized tests were introduced to Britain in the early 19th century because it was feared that the British Empire would collapse if the tests weren’t implemented. The standardized testing movement spread to North America during the Industrial Revolution. Western academics had preferred to use essays to assess their students (this philosophy was inherited from Ancient Greece) but student numbers increased when education became compulsory, making the essay more challenging to mark due to increased volume.

While standardized tests can and do provide important data to help support and improve education, we encounter problems when the tests become more than a tool of education and turn into the focus of education. This is what is currently happening in Ontario.

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