Standardised Testing… is it worth it? by Jen Buchanan
Standardised assessment is a topic that attracts controversy and divides both scholarly and non-scholarly opinion across the globe. 2 Some raise concerns about the integrity of a system that ranks students only leads to grade inflation. Others argue that grading students leads to psychological harm. 3 Standardised assessment no doubt has its pros and cons but the question that remains unaddressed to date is whether it is worth it?
A step back in time…
To understand how we got to our current system of ranking students using grades, let’s take a step back and look at how the concept of grades weaved its way into to the educational landscape as we know it today. Back in 1792, Wiliam Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University in England noted a grading system being used in factories as a way of determining if the shoes made on the assembly line were “up to grade”. Adopting a similar measure into his classroom, Farish was soon able to reduce the time spent with his students, as his “grading system” could now be used a quick measure as to what level his students understood a topic. 4 Across the globe at Yale University, a similar system had just come into practice. In 1785 then president Ezra Stiles had introduced a system whereby students were ranked into four categories: Optimi, second Optimi, Inferiores, and Perjores (roughly, from the Latin then used: Best, Second Best, Lower, Worst). 5
In Australia, The National Assessment Program (NAP) under the guidance of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) certainly makes a strong case for standardized testing both in Australia and internationally. The three sample assessments used to assesses students in science literacy (NAP-SL), civics and citizenship (NAP-CC), ICT literacy (NAP-ICT) complements NAPLAN and international assessments by providing information on student progress in key learning areas. However, the held belief that a current system of standardized testing adds values as a motivator of students and as a tool for educators to design curriculum is being fiercely debated. 7
What is ‘standard’?
The underlying issue with standardised tests is that they need a standard curriculum. Maybe the question that needs to be asked is “what is standard”?
To illustrate this point, let’s go back to 1978 for an early episode of Diff’rent Strokes. In Season One, Mr. Drummond is forced to confront prejudices he is unaware of. He tries to send Arnold and Willis to an elite prep school he attended, only to learn they fail the entrance. Arnold doesn’t make the grade when asked the question, “How many people can you fit in a 3-bedroom apartment with a double bed in each room?”. He answers, “eighteen” to a bemused looking Mr. Drummond. Arnold then goes on to clarify his answer, “eighteen… three in each bed, two on the floor, six on the couch, and one person sleeping in the bathtub.” 8
Can any standardised test be delivered without bias to ensure equity for all? Like any other program or initiative, standardized testing is not without shortcomings. NAPLAN has been a prominent part of Australia’s education landscape since 2008, when it was introduced by then education minister Julia Gillard. It is a standardised test cloaked in controversy, championed by some but disliked by many who argue that it encourages institutions to tailor their teaching towards the test, with scores not reflecting a student’s true ability. 9
The true cost of Standardised testing
The world of testing in Australia is big business and when it comes to standarized testing, Pearson is the world’s largest edu-business worth $10 billion. Since 2011, Pearson has held the $41.6 million NAPLAN contract in NSW and is responsible for the printing and delivery of packages to schools, the marking certain test items, including numeracy and literacy tests, and for the collection of all data. In addition the business generates millions of dollars out of text-book sales every year which has raised concern over a conflict of interests.
Pearson began as a construction company in the UK in 1844. However since the 1950s Pearson acquisitions have centered on publishing, including education. In 2010 in the US, Pearson held a 40% monopoly in the testing market in education… nearly triple its nearest competitor. In an article on Reuters, an international news service based in Great Britain quotes that the, “U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.”. Pearson has experienced huge growth in the education sector in several international markets though it is not without controversy. In his episode on Standardized Testing: Last Week Tonight John Oliver explains how standardized tests impact school funding and how complaints regarding Pearson’s technical inefficiencies, slow grading and poor content resulted in a loss of contracts in several states of the US.
In Australia, the controversial national literacy and numeracy tests, NAPLAN costs $45 per student to administer. The annual cost of running NAPLAN has been consistently quoted as more than $100m, however, uncovering the true figure proves difficult. A Senate inquiry in preparation for the 2013-14 Federal Budget estimates:
- The Australian Government contributed $12.175 million to ACARA to manage the national aspects of NAPLAN testing. ACARA is funded 50% by the Australian Government and 50% by the states and territories of Australia.
- The cost of operating the My School website was $726,000
So is this money being spent wisely?
The numbers are in…
According to the 2019 OECD report, Australian students are up to 18 months behind in reading, three years behind in science and almost four years behind in math. The report also revealed that Australian students achieve similar scores to their counterparts in Germany and the U.S, but trailed behind those in the U.K and New Zealand. Students from China and Singapore claimed top spots in the rankings. 10
The numbers go on to prove that standardized assessment is derailing educational development among Australian students. In 2018, more than 600,000 students from Australia and 78 other countries across the globe took part in NAPLAN’s international sample assessment, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Results confirm a continuing long-term decline in Australian students’ reading, mathematics and science skills.11 Have you ever wondered how you would go if you had to sit a NAPLAN test today? Follow this link to a sample of the numeracy questions provided by the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) to help year 7 students prepare for the NAPLAN test.
Despite divided opinion on standardized assessment, as a learning metric it could be argued that NAPLAN is an effective tool to measure of the quality of curriculum in Australia. Standardized tests come from a neutral source and thus gives data that can be analyzed to reveal gaps and deficiencies in a curriculum. Learning institutions can compare data over a period of time to evaluate progress, identify challenges and gaps within specific systems and come up with ways of addressing their shortcomings. However, it is what we do with this data and how this data is interpreted that needs further investigation. The question remains is standardised testing the best measure of student performance on a national scale?
Standardised testing as a tool to gather data, does little to improve the learning experience for students and certainly does little to foster rich learning experiences that engage students on a deep and authentic level. As Geoff Masters from the Australian Council for Educational Research points out, “assessment thinking has changed little over the past fifty years”. He continues to explain that “assessment practice also has changed little over this period. Traditional, high-stakes examinations continue to dominate what is taught and learnt in many of our schools and universities. Greater use is now being made of promising new technologies, including banks of online assessment tasks, computer adaptive tests and technology-based assessments of ‘new’ life skills and attributes. However, while emerging technologies are capable of providing more innovative and informative explorations of student learning, much electronic assessment remains pedestrian and underpinned by traditional assessment thinking.”
To foster and enable the educational prosperity of future generations, a paradigm shift in assumptions of how we have come to understand assessment from both a theorical standpoint and in practice needs to be challenged. It is only then that we will be able to move from standardised assessment as a metric for gathering data, towards a more holistic education that gives a true measure of what success looks like for all. When did education become a product, and when did conformity become learning?