Standardized tests fail the test (Capitol Update)

Schools got a bit of a gut punch this month when the Oklahoma State Department of Education released the third through eighth-grade results from the Oklahoma School Testing Program.  The result showed standardized test scores dropped in almost every grade and subject for 2018. Only seventh-grade math scores didn’t change. This is the second year for the more rigorous testing standards that were adopted for the 2016-17 school year.

There could be a number of reasons for the lower scores. The effects of larger class sizes, teacher turnover, the increased use of substitutes and emergency certifications brought on by lack of adequate funding are all surely being felt. Students who don’t have the same teacher all year suffer, and it happens often. The feeling of lack of public and political support and turmoil during the 2017-2018 school year probably created morale problems in many schools. This can’t be conducive to either teachers or students doing their best work. Since the current tests are only in their second year, it could also be that the curriculum being taught hasn’t caught up with the knowledge asked for on the tests. 

But the real problem is the whole idea of standardized testing being used to “grade” schools and compare them. Standardized testing mostly began in the late 1980s and early 1990s after the Reagan administration’s widely heralded report in 1983 called “A Nation at Risk.” The report detailed perceived failures of American education, and think tanks began to research and recommend solutions. It’s doubtful most people of the time could foresee the testing industry we have today.

In Oklahoma, student test results in the beginning were never intended to pit teachers, students, and schools against each other. They were to ensure that a basic curriculum was being learned, and they were intended to measure the growth of each student against his or her own prior performance. They were to be used by teachers to help students develop their strengths and improve their weaknesses.

Giving whole schools performance evaluations and comparing them based on a standardized testing regime, regardless of the situations in the lives of the students, their parents, or the community, has become the norm. Such comparisons may not be the intent, but when the scores get published, it is exactly what happens. The result is standardized curricula forced on teachers, regardless of the needs of their students and teaching to the test as a matter of self-defense. No wonder teachers are in short supply.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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