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Standardized Testing, Houdini, and the Art of Illusion

Updated: Oct 18, 2022

For eleven years, Houdini performed his most famous magic trick. It was called the "Upside Down" or "USD". Houdini had his ankles locked into a frame, from which he was dangled upside down over a tank of water. He was lowered head first into the water and locked in place. Escape appeared impossible. Typically, a screen was placed in front of the water tank. When it was removed he would appear to escape out the top. No one ever knew how he did it.

Like Houdini and other famous illusionists such as David Copperfield, we see one thing while something different occurs. In a similar way, standardized testing takes our thinking in one direction when in reality it should go another. That is because standardized testing is incapable of doing what we are told it accomplishes. The question is, why?

Let's do this by working through one of the arguments made by the "standardized-testing-is-good" side:

"Standardized testing is also a good way of ensuring that students are properly learning the information that is being taught to them. If an entire class performs poorly on a standardized test, more likely than not, it's a reflection on the professor's method of instruction." ( › blog)

Sound good? I think so. Sounds necessary, vital and important for the educational process.

But, there is one question on everyone's lips when they leave a magic act, "How did he do that?" So, let's ask those questions.

First, Does standardized testing "ensure students are properly learning"? How does it do that? And Is there a "proper" way to learn?

Does it accurately "reflect" a teachers effectiveness? How does it do that?

The answers are not difficult. No. No. and ah, no. Here's why.

Standardized tests ignore developmental and experiential differences among students. It also doesn't take into account differences in the ability to engage in logical or reasoned thinking. Research shows there may be three different levels of capability for logical thinking at most grade levels.

Then, we need to add the complexity of differing learning styles to those three levels of logical thinking. While there are variations in the way researchers distinguish learning styles, all agree that there are several very different ways students learn and retain information. These various learning styles are also present at every grade level.

Each of these learning styles requires a different process, a different pace of learning, and a different way to express what has been learned. This is the precise opposite of what standardized testing measures.

Standardized testing might be appropriate if we were still entering the industrial revolution, but that is centuries behind us.

Because there are various learning styles and ways of exhibiting learning, there are a plethora of ways students will exhibit what they have truly learned. Hearing information and regurgitating it on a test, a way to measure rote learning, well, here's what Kirkpatrick wrote:

Donald Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., has developed probably the best known model, globally, for analyzing and evaluating the results of training and educational programs. His classification of rote learning places it as a perception of training and as the lowest form of learning. And it is the primary method used for preparing for and taking the standardized test.

In experiments that have been successfully repeated by scientists around the world, Atkinson demonstrated that rote learners were successfully able to recall vocabulary from lists at a rate of 28%. That's good? It's far less than acceptable because that low score (which is failing by the way) is achieved from students whose learning style is matched to the test.

As a result, memorizing information and restating it on a standardized test might demonstrate what only a quarter of the students learned, and it might not. That's because there are students who do poorly on written tests but, for instance, would ace oral exams.

It follows that if there are only 20-30% of the students who are tested according to the way they learn, in what way can standardized testing be a good indicator of what 100% of the students have learned? That's why Kirkpatrick calls it the 'perception of learning'.

Taken together and connecting the statement and question we asked, how is standardized testing "a good way of ensuring that students are properly learning the information that is being taught to them"? Clearly, it is not.

What has been demonstrated to be the most effective forms of teaching?

Perhaps later we will address the issue of short term memory verses long term memory and how short term memory is converted to long term memory. Here we will look at only one. › the-learning-pyramid, they state,

"Practice by doing, a form of "Discover Learning", is one of the most effective methods of learning and study. This method of study encourages students to take what they learn and put it into practice – whereby promoting deeper understanding and moving information from short-term to long-term memory."

This is one of the significant components of Personalized Learning and one that has no connection or relationship to the process associated with standardized testing.

So, now to briefly address the question, does it accurately "reflect" a teacher's effectiveness? You already know the answer to this. But for the sake of effect..... If there are several ways people learn, several levels of logical thinking, and standardized testing does not consider any of them, if it requires one learning method which is considered the least effective way to learn, and if children express what they learn according to how they learn, how can a standardized test be a good way to evaluate a teacher's effectiveness?

Put another way, how can a 4th grade teacher with 30 students who must teach a standardized curriculum at a set pace and dispense a certain block of information with limited time, limited methods and limited resources, be evaluated and judged by the results of a test the vast majority of students are not wired to test in that way?

Even worse, teachers at the junior high level face 180-200 students every day; 30-35 different students every 50 minutes. How is it even remotely possible to discern the effectiveness of that teacher's methods? If we give an honest response, it is impossible. The system has created a real dilemma for teachers and then uses the wrong tool to measure it's effectiveness. It is part of the reason 40% of public school teachers want to quit and only 12% of school teachers are very satisfied with their job. If that was the commercial world the entire HR department and every supervisor and manager would be replaced.

The idea that standardized testing can demonstrate anything about what students actually learn or how effectively a teacher teaches is an illusion. It is like saying there is one technique and set of procedures for all surgeries. There is much more to say about standardized testing, and I will do that in the future. Until then, at Paradigm Learning we will keep doing what we do best: develop a student 's unique learning style, pace of learning, put what they learn into the context of their interests, so they have the best opportunity to discover what they love, learn and can retain it for life.

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