The historical and social foundations of standardized testing:
by N.T. Edwards (Yamaguchi University)
In search of a balance between learning and evaluation
The use of standardized exams has become an increasingly heated topic of debate in educational circles, with important implications for the future of language education and testing. This article explores the historical and social foundations of standardized testing. Numerous potential negative consequences and perceived positive aspects of standardized testing are also addressed in detail.
Standardized tests have strict, uniform administration and scoring procedures that rank large groups of students in relation to their level of achievement in a broad area of knowledge. The difficulty of items on a standardized test varies. International standardized tests such as the TOEIC® and TOEFL®, designed in the United States, have a profound impact on the foreign language curricula of some Japanese schools. Cunningham (2002) states:
Most universities [in Japan] require students to complete a first-year general-English course to develop their English
language communication skills . . . . An exit test is also administered, with score gains or losses calculated into the
students' overall grade. The tests of choice are the TOEIC® (Test of English for International Communication)
and the TOEFL® (Test of English as a Foreign Language); both are products of ETS [Educational Testing Services] (p.3)
A number of educators have been asking whether the extensive use of standardized testing is fostering greater achievement levels for students or creating a new subculture of underachievers and dropouts. The issues involved in standardized testing are complex. An understanding of the underlying historical and social foundations is necessary to better understand and evaluate the negative and positive aspects of standardized testing.
Historical Foundations of Standardized Testing
According to Gallagher (2003) the use of standardized scholastic testing dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1800s, Horace Mann introduced the concept of using exams in Boston schools to gain “objective information about the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools, monitor the quality of instruction, and compare schools and teachers within each school” (Gallagher, 2003, p. 85). The tests revealed differences in students' knowledge and additional testing was implemented in order to make sound judgments about student advancement (Scott, 2004). Mann's exams were so successful that they were adopted by school systems across the country. Achievement tests, considered objective and comprehensive, became a popular method for assessing learning.
World War I also had a significant impact on testing strategies in the early twentieth century (Pioneers in Standardized Testing, 2002). The U.S. Army required a method for quickly identifying potential officers among large numbers of recruits. To do so, Arthur Otis and Robert Yerkes developed the Alpha Army Test, which gauged a soldier's mental capabilities. The Alpha Army Test, which had an efficient and effective scoring method, became a model for many future standardized tests. This test changed the image of standardized testing, and patent and copyright requests for tests soared. Student tracking became widely used in schools as standardized tests were used to sort students into different curricula based on abilities.
Student tracking using standardized tests became a common practice in the 1920s. Gallagher states “by 1929 more than five million tests were administered annually, and results were used to segregate those who had learned from those who had not” (2003, p. 88). Testing was also being used to evaluate instructional quality in the schools.
The use of standardized testing in classrooms rose during World War II and the Cold War. Gallagher notes that national leaders believed maintaining a “competitive position in the world was dependent on identifying student talent in academics, leadership, and managerial skills” (2003, p. 90). As a result, standardized testing to determine class placement and advancement increased.
In 1965, the first federal laws were passed requiring the use of standardized tests (Scott, 2004; Nagy, 2000). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as Title I, channeled money into many under-funded schools and acknowledged the federal government's responsibility to ensure access to educational opportunities nationwide (Scott, 2004). However, in return school districts had to prove that funds were being used appropriately through quantifiable results. Thus, Title I required schools to submit standardized test scores in order to receive federal funding.
Civil rights activists asserted standardized tests were biased on the basis of social class and cultural background. The activists claimed that the tests reinforced social and economic disparities. In 1966, the National Center for Education Statistics authorized a study examining the issue of testing equity amongst diverse populations. Later known as the Coleman Report, the study found a student's home environment was the most important factor affecting school achievement (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005). Supporters of standardized testing used the findings of the Coleman Report to assert students' home environments, and not standardized testing biases, were responsible for the disparities in test scores amongst diverse populations.
Despite the widespread use of testing, standardized testing had little affect on teaching practices until the late 1970s (Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). Demands for educational accountability increased in the 1970s (Savage, 2003; Nagy, 2000). When students scored poorly, teachers and school administrators were held accountable. Raising the test scores sometimes meant changing the curricula to make sure what the students were learning matched the contents of the standardized tests (deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999). Additionally, Congress changed Title I in 1974 by recommending the increased use of standardized testing to improve school programs and curricula. Gallagher states, “By the 1980s, 33 states mandated some form of minimum competency testing and over 200 million tests were administered annually to determine . . . academic readiness" (2003, p. 92). The use of standardized testing continues to increase in contemporary education.
Functionalism: The Social Foundation of Standardized Testing
The standardized testing movement has been influenced by the social theory of functionalism. Parsons, a leading American sociologist after World War II and a representative of the functionalist school, describes the goal of society as the “development in individuals of . . . capacities which are essential prerequisites of their future role performance” (as cited in Pai & Adler, 2001, p. 130). Schools act as sorting mechanisms from a functionalist viewpoint, grouping students according to their measured abilities. Thus, students are trained to perform their assigned functions in society. Standardized testing facilitates the selection process by grouping students into clearly defined levels of ability and related job categories. Functionalism leads to a rigidly-structured hierarchical society based on merit.
Efficiency is reputed to be the main strength of functionalism. The abilities of all students are carefully evaluated, and students are sorted based on merit. In theory, this process leads to a rational use of human capital and talent that is carefully distributed throughout the entire body of society. Horace Mann, also referred to as the “father of American education” (deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 9), was the Secretary of the influential Massachusetts Board of Education from 1837-1848. Mann's views had a profound and lasting effect on the direction of American education. Spring notes that Mann advocated the creation of a meritocracy in the United States or “hierarchical social structure organized by ability” (as cited in deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 10). The concept that students should be ranked and grouped according to academic achievement and ability forms the basis of contemporary education in most schools in the world.
The perceived need for standardized testing continued into the twentieth century. James B. Conant, president of Harvard University from 1933-1953, fervently advocated the functionalist view of society by emphasizing the selective function of the school system (Tozer, Violas, & Senese, 2002). Conant helped to develop the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as an objective means of selecting the best candidates from across the country to enter Harvard. Conant was more concerned with maintaining social stability than with meeting the intellectual needs of every student in the country, and he later helped to found the Educational Testing Service (ETS). ETS continues to develop and manage many influential standardized tests (Tozer, Violas, & Senese, 2002). The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), originally created by the Carnegie Foundation, was given to the Educational Testing Service in 1948 (Schulman, 2005). The Carnegie Foundation, a non-profit educational organization, continues to develop and promote standardized tests to improve the quality of American education.
Functionalism provides a logical, scientific, and highly integrated framework to explain the function of education. The functionalist view of society has been championed over the centuries by conservative politicians and social critics such as the eighteenth century British statesman Edmund Burke, who also believed that society should possess a hierarchical structure (Gutek, 1997). More recently, Bennet notes the U.S. Secretary of Education's belief in 1988 that “American parents want their schools to do one thing above all others: teach their children to read, write, and speak well” (as cited in deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 7). The U.S. Secretary of Education's personal statement of opinion clearly reveals a functionalist viewpoint; students must be trained above all to be good workers. Parents may also wish their children to be honest and ethical citizens that understand, value, and protect democratic values. However, the social theory of functionalism places more emphasis on the acquisition of practical, work-related skills.
Scherer (2005) states that standardized tests are “used to assign rank or provide accountability” and that this may have the unintended effect of making learning in schools a “secondary function” (p. 1). Educators should work to ensure that deep learning remains the primary function of schools. Ideally, a balance should be struck between classroom learning and testing, with the highest priority being given to learning in all subject areas. Learning and testing are not necessarily synonymous, and care must be taken to ensure that testing does not become an end in itself, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum at the expense of a broader and deeper educational experience.
The Potential Negative Effects of Standardized Testing
Amrein and Berliner (2002) maintain that standardized testing results in an increase in drop-out rates, especially among minorities, higher levels of cheating, and a narrowing of the curriculum. Too much focus on test taking skills may reduce opportunities for deeper learning. Cunningham (2002) observes:
As Leonard (1998) and Gorsuch (2000) write, the format of Japanese University entrance-exams runs counter to the injunctions of Monbusho to develop communicative abilities. These exams
are still mainly M/C [multiple choice] in format, test vocabulary and require translation. Tasks that test writing and aural/oral abilities are rare. Thus, students see no point in
focusing on these skills at school and as a result teachers ignore them. (p.29)
The purpose of standardized graduation exams is to increase performance in areas such as mathematics and science in order to make students more competitive in the global market. Political and economic considerations often take precedence over considerations of teaching methodology. For example, the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, a highly political report based on a perceived economic threat from global competitors, primarily Japan and Germany, had a major impact on the American educational system (Tozer, Violas, & Senese, 2002). A Nation at Risk led to a massive increase in standardized testing in the United States, the world's largest economy. Standardized testing is being used to compare the academic abilities of students both nationally and globally. Business interests involved in educational reform may give priority to developing competent workers instead of members of society that possess a deep social conscience (Noddings, 2005). Test scores offer clarity and efficiency in the curriculum, while increasing the confidence of the community in high achieving schools. However, standardized tests may do little to develop the individual beyond the fundamental processes of rote learning (Phelps, 2005).
Ironically, the original intent of standardized tests in education was to guide and broaden teacher practices (Noddings, 2005). For a specific student or classroom, analysis of standardized testing can improve the delivery of educational services by offering feedback on student performance. A properly administered test and subsequent interpretation offers valuable feedback to the teacher as to his or her teaching effectiveness and student progress (Scherer, 2005). Accurate feedback helps to improve the curriculum.
How well the concepts of democracy, critical reasoning, social awareness, and a broad appreciation of literacy are taught depends on teaching methods and not on teaching to the demands of standardized tests (Neilsen, 1992). Critical thinking skills need to be taught as well as test taking skills. Marshall (2005) maintains standardized graduation exams may cause students to become rote learners of facts who lack problem solving skills due to a rigid curriculum and limited experiential learning. The overuse of measurement-driven learning has been a frequent criticism of Japanese schools. The same criticisms are now being made of American schools as a result of widespread, regular, high-stakes standardized testing.
A recent study conducted at Arizona State University revealed that 62 percent of the states adopting standardized graduation exams experienced a significant increase in their dropout rates (Fratt, 2005). The correlation between increased dropout rates and the use of standardized testing was also indicated in a joint study conducted by the University of Texas and Arizona State University. That study revealed that dropout rates had increased, and the curricula had narrowed due to the pressure to focus on preparing students for standardized graduation exams (Ullman, 2005). The narrowing of the curriculum is often necessary to prepare students to achieve high scores on specific standardized exams, but this may also result in a reduction of actual overall learning in all subject areas.
Flinders states, “What is tested now determines what is taught”(2005, p. 8). Ideally, what is learned should determine what is tested. If too much focus is placed on preparing for, and administering standardized tests, then learning opportunities may be lost in the classroom, and the educational experience of students may be narrowed. Teachers may have less control of the lessons they teach, and may choose to focus exclusively on test preparation at the expense of more natural and authentic learning opportunities such as class discussions, and field trips.
ALC Press conducted a survey of 129 senior high school English teachers in Japan in 1996 in which 59% of the teachers believed their oral communication classes were ineffective, and 16% of the teachers stated that they had changed their oral communication classes into preparation classes for exams (Lokon, 2005). The fact that some English teachers in Japan use officially designated communication classes to teach exam test taking strategies in a hidden curriculum is testimony to the narrowing effect that standardized exams may exert on the curriculum.
Buell and Kralovec (2005) note dropouts are sometimes an ignored factor when calculating school performance in some U.S. school districts: some school districts conveniently calculate student performance based on the students remaining in school. If underachieving students dropout, they are no longer part of the school's performance equation, and the data becomes misleading. Campbell's Law occurs when an indicator or test is used for social decision-making, and as a result becomes corrupted, thus providing a misleading picture of the subject that it was intended to monitor (Buell & Kralovec, 2005). This law may apply in many standardized test contexts, leading to data contamination errors. Although dropout rates are relatively low in Japan, unrealistic expectations and the stress to perform well on high-stakes standardized language tests such as the TOEIC® may lead to a subsequent drop in learner motivation and enthusiasm for practicing English.
Harmful psychological effects can result from the excessive use of standardized tests, especially in the lower grade levels. Evangeline (2006) states, “Where standardized tests alone reveal only the language differences of students . . . a combination of formal tests and informal assessments can indicate their progress. Portfolios, in particular, capture both the process and products of students' learning.” Educators should view standardized test scores as only one factor among many in the assessment process.
The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act in the United States requires state standards and progress objectives in mathematics and reading, and annual tests for all students in grades three to eight. While there is a need for a certain degree of accountability and high educational standards, the amount of testing required by NCLB may be excessive, and counter-productive to the fundamental goals of the act. Allington believes that NCLB would be improved if there were less testing, and if more precise assessment tools were employed (2005). Too much testing may be counterproductive and demoralizing for some students. Standardized tests may not accurately account for regional differences in curricula. Allington further maintains, “Revising NCLB so that accountability reports focus on progress that cohorts of students make over time would provide a better method for estimating school impacts on the achievement gaps (2005, para. 8). Clearly, NCLB requires more accurate assessment tools in order to detect possible harmful effects of standardized testing. Tests are like X-rays; Used appropriately, medical X-rays are a valuable diagnostic tool but overuse may cause permanent damage.
There is a significant amount of variety to standardized tests, and the “Jido-Eiken” and Cambridge Young Learners of English (CYLE) tests are two examples of standardized tests which are designed to be as non-threatening as possible. However, Gould (2003) observes that many of the questions on some standardized tests are “beyond the knowledge and experience of many children” (as cited in Stahlman, 2005, p. 2). This can be an extremely traumatic experience for young children, whose minds are still developing, and are not yet prepared to cope with a large range of difficulty, and abstract test questions. Some children may experience serious emotional problems as a result of being given tests that are clearly beyond their ability.
Current research strongly suggests that the use of standardized testing should be avoided in lower grades, since such tests are not suited to the physical and psychological developmental stage of young children. Perrone (1989) maintains that standardized testing “does not provide useful information about individual children, yet often becomes the basis for decisions about children's entry into kindergarten, promotion and retention in the grades . . . ” (as cited in Odland, 2005, p. 3). Extreme care should be exercised by educators in the selection of the type and frequency of testing. Now that English has been introduced into the lower grade levels in Japan, care should be taken not to overburden young students with excessive testing. Overuse of testing could negate the benefits of natural learning through play and other enjoyable activities related to language learning by young children.
Mirchandani et al. note “exam performance may not be correlated with actual knowledge” (as cited in Bagamery, Laslik, & Nixon, 2005, p. 4). Some students may achieve high scores on standardized tests without being proficient in the subject areas being tested, although this problem is not limited to standardized tests and relates to the construct validity of a given test.
Cunningham maintains the “distinction between structure and function [in the natural use of language] supports criticisms against M/C tests such as the TOEIC™ and other traditional language tests” (2002, p.22).There is a growing perception among educators and researchers that a separation is occurring between the goals of actual learning and testing in contemporary education.
The Perceived Positive Aspects of Standardized Testing
Standardized testing has numerous negative points, but there are also positive aspects of testing and accountability. Standardized testing has a long history based on the need for accountability in the classroom. The dialectic pendulum swings over time as a result of a variety of complex factors: at certain times in history formal testing is emphasized. When the abuses become too apparent, the balance swings in the other direction. The progressive school movement, which stressed the need for meaningful tasks and natural learning, occurred in the United States near the end of the 19th century and is a classic example of a reaction against rote learning and formal testing (Gutek, p.79). The recent paradigm shift in favor of the competency-based approach to education has many states using standardized tests to maintain expectations of accountability, student promotion standards, and curriculum emphasis (Luna & Turner, 2001). Luna and Turner also maintain high-stakes tests can help to maintain high expectations, encourage students and teachers, and may also help to close the achievement gap between various learner groups (2001). Standardized tests can provide a clear focus and specific goals for students to strive towards.
In Japan, Edwards (2004) maintains:
The pendulum of language learning has swung in recent years towards learner autonomy and student-centered teaching as the most effective means to address the language learning needs of the next generation, equipping them at the same time with the critical thinking skills necessary to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex world. (p19)
The movement towards more learner autonomy with an added emphasis on communication skills in the language classroom is occurring in many countries at the same time that standardized testing is increasing. At first glance, learner-centered communication skills and standardized testing do not appear to be compatible. Kitao and Kitao observe, “The entrance examinations [of Japanese universities] do not emphasize English as it is actually used but rather “grammar book English.” Most examinations do not require performance in English” (1995, p.10).
However, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) plans to include a listening section in the University Entrance Central Examination (Center Test) in 2006 to emphasize the importance of communication skills. Lokon notes “It is believed that by adding a listening test to this national university entrance examination for high school students, high school English teachers will develop students' English communication skills” (2005, p.7). Standardized exams that encourage the development of communication skills rather than the use of rote memory and a narrow range of specific test taking skills may exert a positive influence on the curriculum. The Jitsuyo Eigo Ginou Kentei Shiken (Certification Test in Practical English Proficiency), also known as the Eiken test, is a standardized English test that requires performance in English. Fouts states, “The second stage [of the Eiken], required for all who pass the first stage, is a speaking test in the form of a personal interview” (as cited in Newfields, 2005, p.21). In order to change or modify their basic teaching practices and philosophy, some teachers need to be genuinely convinced of the importance of teaching communicative skills.
Standardized testing can also foster teamwork among teachers. Teamwork has become a common part of today's schools (Wheelan & Kesselring, 2005). An increasing body of research is finding links between faculty collaboration and student achievement. The positive effects of faculty teamwork on student achievement are even more visible in schools in areas of high-poverty. Wheelan & Kesselring (2005) point out that if faculty members trust each other, and work collaboratively with a focus on students, learning and achievement will increase among their students. Standardized tests can help to focus both students and teachers on the achievement of clear objectives.
Research has also revealed it may be possible to have students perform well on high-stakes tests while keeping the classroom student-centered. Williamson, Bondy, Langley, and Mayne (2005) suggest the following strategies to maintain this equilibrium in the classroom: “ . . . challenge students with cognitively complex tasks, contextualize teaching and learning in the experiences of home and community, engage students in instructional conversations, developing students' competence in language and literacy throughout all instructional activities” (p. 196).
The need for accountability in the classroom also exists in higher education. In the 1970s, few governing bodies held colleges and universities accountable for funding. However, as this situation changed, schools began to institute accountability efforts, which included standardized testing (Black & Duhon, 2003). Performance on a standardized test is also a common criterion for college admission as well. While many colleges are moving away from this practice, support for it is still strong. In fact, Carlson (1998) found that the GRE was an effective predictor of performance in graduate school. Additionally, in an effort to counter some common arguments against standardized testing, Heriot and Wonnel (2003) examined claims that the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is racially biased, and determined that such claims have been generally unfounded and unsupported.
Mirchandani, Lynch, and Hamilton (2001) assert that there are a number of advantages to using standardized testing, including the cost-effectiveness involved in evaluating large numbers of students. Standardized tests are the fastest and most efficient means to evaluate large groups of students at colleges and universities. Black and Duhon (2003) also point out that the use of standardized tests can be effective when assessing educational outcomes. However, schools must act appropriately to ensure this. Additionally, schools must also use the results of standardized testing judiciously. Nagy (2000) asserts the main functions of standardized testing should be gatekeeping, accountability, and instructional diagnosis. Standardized tests can play a role in the selection of new students or employees, but such test scores should also be balanced by other factors such as personal interviews, student portfolios, work experience, study abroad, and contributions to community projects.
Standardized testing will likely continue to be a topic of heated debate among educators throughout the United States and in many parts of the world. The increased use of standardized testing at all educational levels and in different subject areas has revealed many weaknesses, as well as strengths. The consequences of this major educational debate could have a profound and lasting effect on the ways in which tests such as the TOEIC® and TOEFL® are used around the world.
The internal and external constituents of schools, educators, students, parents, the business community, and politicians all have an important role to play in creating an effective curriculum that balances the needs of the individual with the requirements of the greater community. Educators must find a way to judiciously use test scores in order to assess and improve curriculum, and to increase student learning opportunities. A balance must be struck between actual learning, and fair and accurate methods of evaluation.
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