In “A Student Says No to Standardized Testing,” Taylor Lannamann talks about one facet of American life that can’t seem to escape the plague of standardization: education.  Lannamann takes us through growing up with educational standardization, beginning with the tests in middle school and high school, “one of the many ugly faces of No Child Left Behind” where “students and teachers lost hours of class time in an attempt to receive funds,” to the SATs, “which hung over us like lead X-ray smocks, constricting safety blankets keeping us inside the small realm of accepted educational paths.”  

Lannamann writes that for many students, standardized testing ends after the SAT, but now, as a college senior, she finds herself “staring down the barrel of the GRE,” asking herself, “do I really want to do this?”  While wondering why she must take a standardized test to study creative writing, she asks “Will memorizing the quadratic formula help me prove my ability to craft narrative? Doesn’t taking a standardized test undermine an integral component of the field, the “creative” side of writing? How often do you hear of creativity blossoming in a standardized, uniform environment?”

standardized testing

For Lannamann and many others, creativity means breaking away from such monotonous practices.  Upon learning that many strong M.F.A. programs in creative writing do not require the GRE, she thought she saw progress and interpreted it as a “departure from archaic standardized testing.”  However, college seniors find themselves facing  yet another standardized test, the recently created Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+).

The CLA+ hopes to test exiting seniors to gauge their ability to “access, structure, and use information.”   Lannamann notes that on its web site, the Council for Aid to Education states: “Over 700 institutions—both in the United States and internationally—have used the Collegiate Learning Assessment to benchmark value-added growth in student learning at their college or university compared to other institutions.”

Lannamann invites us to look at the word “benchmark:” “Does it belong in the discourse of education? Learning and teaching is a give-and-take process, a dialogue between teacher and student. How could this possibly be measured by a standardized test? Do we, as students, want our educational experiences defined in terms of “benchmarks,” statistics, quantitative information?”

Lannamann is terrified that the world is becoming “a place where people rely on statistics rather than genuine human connection.”  She argues we need to recognize the validity of educational diversity, because people learn in all different ways, and that is a teacher’s job to connect with students in an attempt to discover the most effective way of teaching.  In the same way, Lannamann stresses that her college degree will mean something different than her friends’ degrees, as “certain distinctive areas will have taken center stage for me while different concepts will have resonated for others…[so] What will this look like on a standardized test? It will be inaccurate, it will be reductive, and it will be unjust.”

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Lannamann asks for society to say no to standardized testing, but coming at it from the other side, in “Private-Colleges Group Says a Standardized Test Improves Teaching and Learning,” Dan Berrett reveals the results of a report released that claims the CLA, a standardized test of critical thinking, can be an effective tool for changing teaching and learning in the classroom.

Berrett reports that in a study coordinated by the Council of Independent Colleges, the CLA, was administered to about 7,500 students by 47 small liberal-arts institutions between the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2011, and while the students’ actual results on the test have not been made public, council officials said the students produced CLA scores that met or exceeded expectations, and that most of the colleges will continue using the CLA on their own.

Berrett explains that the CLA is one of several tests in use by colleges in response to public demands for measures of student learning.  He also notes that the colleges in the council’s study used the CLA to spark changes in teaching and learning, the report says, where, in response to their institutions’ CLA scores, several campuses “started workshops on the pedagogy of writing and critical thinking,” and others “recognized weaknesses in their curriculum that were not as readily apparent before the test.”  Harold V. Hartley III, senior vice president of the council, stated that once faculty members got a closer look at the CLA, they saw that it could be a good measure of student learning, and called the test “a practical way of measuring learning…a test worth teaching to.”

Berrett writes that “supporters of the test also say it measures the kind of critical thinking, problem-solving, writing, and analytical-reasoning skills that students are likely to need in the real world,” and that skeptics say “the test is too far removed from the content that students have to learn in college… [and] they question whether the results are truly reliable, since students never receive their scores and have little motivation to do well.”

Lastly, Berrett notes that the report argues that “self-generated efforts to adopt tests like the CLA offer a better way for colleges to respond to calls for accountability, as compared with mandates from the outside, like the measures that have been put in place at the primary and secondary levels.”  So, does the argument, that a test is worth teaching to, hold up?

Check out the article “My GRE Score Says I’m Smart.  Hire me.,” also by Dan Berret.

In “Value Added,” Kevin Carey states that the CLA is not the be-all and end-all of college assessment, rather “a general assessment of analytic reasoning, critical thinking and communications skills that doesn’t measure mastery of the disciplines.”  Carey states that there is room for measurement and sampling error, like any standardized test, but that “it should be the beginning of much more attention to how much students learn while they’re in college,” and that “this is how we ought to be thinking about success and prestige in higher education.”

Carey claims that the CLA results highlight “severe limitations in the way we credential college students, and the vast differences in ability among students who are all pushed through a system that in many ways assumes they’re the same.” He gives the example of the bias in the premium given in the job market to degrees from highly selective institutions: the bright student who, for financial or family reasons, chooses to attend college at a local four-year institution, except in a state that doesn’t publish value-added measures like the CLA, works hard, and graduates at the top of the class.  Without “value-added measures” like the CLA, Carey claims that the student is not rewarded for this because “the market cares little about college grades because they’re opaque and inconsistent,” and, conversely, the guy who finishes last at the Ivy League school is over-valued in the market.

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Carey writes that sample-based measures like the CLA are only the beginning; “what we really need to do is start attaching a lot more useful information to individual college credentials while also making the credentialling process itself more open and flexibile, less about having been taught by some kind of formal institution and more about having actually learned something real.”

Do you say no to standardized testing?

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