The Problem with Measuring Problem Solving Through Standardized Tests


Standardized TestsIf I had a choice between a multiple choice test and an essay, I would choose the essay every single time. Honestly, I would choose probably anything other than the multiple choice test. I would rather stand up in front of a class of my peers and give a speech or work out a math problem on the board. Both of these risk complete humiliation, but to me they’re a million times better than bubbling in a scantron, just the thought of which makes my stomach churn.

Standardized Tests: You’re either right or wrong

My issue with multiple choice tests and standardized tests in particular is how final the answer is. There’s no room for explanation. I am not able to vocalize my decision making process or explain how I got the answer I did. The answer is either right or wrong; it’s all so black and white.

Standardized tests are supposedly designed to measure logical reasoning, analytical skills, critical thinking, and problem solving. But to me, the fact that the answer is either right or wrong negates an accurate measure of these skills entirely. Student A may have worked out the entire problem in length and made one small error, filled in the incorrect bubble leading her to get the entire question incorrect, while student B decided to randomly spell out “A-B-B-A-C-A-D-A-B-A” and just got lucky. The entire premise of not being able to explain the thought behind your answer is counterproductive to the education process entirely.

The concept of education and schooling has been around since 3500 BC, yet standardized testing was not introduced until the 19th century in Britain and the 20th century in the United States with the SAT being introduced in 1901. In the 112 years since the SAT’s birth, the role of standardized testing has changed dramatically in the United States. Once used solely as a supplemental measure, standardized tests seem to be gaining increasing importance in determining a student (and teacher’s) future. Skills such as articulation, debate, handwriting, and critical reasoning are going out the window in classrooms with teacher’s being forced to focus on the best techniques to pass the SOLs.

Teaching to the Test

These skills are being stripped from the curriculum and students are feeling the results after they leave high school. A new study showed that only 54% of students who enter a four year college or university graduate within six years. This percentage is even lower for African American and Hispanic students. The number one academic reason students fail: writing. In a skill that requires critical thinking, organizational thought, and articulation, over 28% of college freshman are deemed “deficient” – a rate higher today than it was in 1974. While students’ tests scores have increased on average 3 points since No Child Left Behind’s inception, their critical thinking and writing skills have gone out the window.

What Standardized Tests Lack

Bill Ayers put it simply when he said, “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”

The argument for standardized testing is often that it is an objective measure. While I agree with this statement, ultimately education is not an objective field. The teaching techniques that work for one student may not work for another. The way one student may think about a problem may be entirely different than the student next to him. One central theme to education is innovation or thinking outside the box. But how can students do that when their answers are limited to A, B, C, or D?