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The Current State of Education: Performance-Based Teaching

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        Education has changed significantly during the past two hundred years in the United States. In the past education was the privilege of the wealthy, male, educated elite. Next the basics of reading and writing were taught in small schools, usually to male, Caucasian students from a homogenous background. Today education is a legally required rite of passage for all students, and educators work with children who speak dozens of languages with multiple needs from many ethnic backgrounds. With these changes the concept of what it means to educate a person has changed. Educational experts argue over the effectiveness of theories, methodologies, and pedagogical practices. What, and how to assess educational success, is an exceptionally controversial topic, and few events have changed education more than the implementation and weight of standardized testing over the last twenty-five years. Standardized tests, which were once reserved for children applying for college, are now given to all students at every grade. These tests are intended to measure the student’s mastery of the subject, and much more. The government uses standardized tests to rank the schools nationwide. Poorly performing schools may receive cuts in funding, and loss of teacher positions. Schools that perform well receive positive media attention; attract bright students, additional funds, and other benefits.

Standardized Testing: The Drawbacks

        Students in U.S. schools are among the most heavily tested in the developed world, with each student completing at least six standardized tests per year (1). These tests were designed to give state, local, and federal government policymakers a simple method to determine if schools are succeeding or failing at their tasks. However, as the name implies, standardized tests measure the average learning skill and cannot measure variables that impact education such as the child’s motivation, personal history, intelligence, or dozens of other factors (2). Educators understand that these variables are extremely important in the education of individual students. Despite protests from educators, and in particular the American Teachers Union, in 2001 President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB is a sweeping educational reform requiring standardized tests to rate the overall effectiveness of schools (3). 

Varieties of Standardized Testing – Multiple Uses

        There are two types of standardized test: norm based, and criteria based. Norm based standardized tests measure the performance of one school against another in a different part of the country. Criteria based tests measure the performance of a particular school against preset criteria. As the use of standardized testing has spread, these tests have gradually become a popular method to evaluate teacher performance. Many states and local districts now measure teacher and administrator job performance by how well their students perform on norm based standardized tests. Proponents of this evaluation method claim this will not affect students or their test scores (4) but this is not the case. Teachers now ‘teach to the test’ and nearly 80 percent of elementary teachers reported they have changed what they teach to ensure their students test well (5). This clearly has a serious effect on student education, as students learn to take tests to essentially preserve their teacher’s jobs.

        The use of standardized test scores to evaluate teacher’s performance and effectiveness is spreading. Florida recently announced it will begin using this approach to evaluate teachers in 2012, according to the Daily Comet (6). With legislation such as this spreading across the nation there is no doubt that this testing will change children’s quality of education as teachers feel compelled to teach to the test to keep their jobs. This downgrades the quality of education. Children learn one set of facts, and little else. Teachers have also complained about this kind of testing. A frequent comment by teachers at all grade levels is that this kind of teaching is not the same as educating (7). Teaching to the test is more of a repetitive activity, with little of the creativity and challenge that inspires dedicated potential educators to enter the profession. An article in the Seattle Times alludes to this notion, “There is a certain amount of disconnect between what motivates quality teachers and school-district plans to tie teacher evaluations and pay to test scores, (8).” This supports the teachers concerns that they are now teaching children to pass a test to ensure their own jobs, rather than educating the children.

Standardized Tests – Goals

        So what are standardized tests supposed to do?  These tests may be an attempt to determine why the U.S. has fallen behind in high school graduation rates. Drop-out rates are indeed high. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, a small rural area, nearly 40 percent of all students drop out of school before graduating (9). In the District of Columbia, the drop-out rate was 78 percent in 2008 (5). These rates have a significant effect on the U.S. ability to compete internationally. The U.S. is now ranked 12th in developed countries in terms of science and math scores (5) which has serious economic implications for the future. Perhaps, policymakers may reason, teachers are not doing their jobs. By implementing standardized tests, it might ensure that teachers improve their performance, which would improve education, which would be reflected in the tests. If this is true, then it is a very simplistic approach. Standardized tests only measure the average. Children who have test anxiety sleep poorly the night before; have family troubles or learning challenges, all may test poorly. None of these variables are reflected in standardized test scores. Further, there is no proof that children who perform well on standardized tests are more likely to graduate from high school.

Standardized Tests as Teacher Motivator?

        The use of standardized tests to measure teacher performance is also questionable. While it is apparent teachers are motivated by the tests to keep their jobs, it is unclear if the tests encourage them to excel. In a recent study at Vanderbilt University, researchers evaluated performance when teachers were offered the possibility of merit pay with high test performance. This study showed that merit pay tied to test scores did not stimulate teachers (10). These findings may indicate that standardized test scores only motivate teachers to ensure that students pass to keep their jobs. As a motivator to excel in teaching, the tests may have no influence at all. Whatever the case may be, our current educational state is in dire need of serious evaluation to help our future generations learn better to help our society flourish. The State of Teaching in the United States

        It is no secret that U.S. teachers are underpaid, often held in low esteem, and work long hours under stressful conditions. Entry level teachers are typically young adults in the bottom third of their graduation class (3). Perhaps, as a society we are recruiting the wrong type of person to teach. According to an article in the Seattle-Times, South Korea only recruits teachers who graduate in the top five percent of their class, Finland the top ten percent (8). This fact sheds some light on the state of our educational system. It is not surprising to see that the U.S. produces students that do not rank as high as Asian and European students in testing and academics when their instructors are from the lowest academic ranks. How can an American student expect to equal, academically, a South Korean student when their instructors are poorly educated?  Are teacher unions in the US overly detrimental in the ability to provide highly qualified teachers and proper education for all students? It is imperative to find a solution that emphasizes benefits for students as well as citizens and society as a whole.

Other Forms of Evaluation

        Some people, educators, students, and parents, need a grade as a baseline measure how well they are learning. Grades help push some students, and earning an “A” can be a point of self-esteem. Are we supposed to fault them for that? Shouldn't we be open to all types of evaluation? Is it really fair to say "Here's a 3.3 cause you did what you needed to do, but it still wasn't that special"? When examined in this light, then grading is not as clear cut as it may appear. It should be possible to develop other methods of evaluation in addition to grading. Is our current state of test-based evaluation the new norm and the only option for evaluating performance based on grades?

Benefits of Standardized Tests

        Standardized tests, particularly criteria based tests, do have some advantages. They give a partial picture of the state of a particular school. When students in Washington D.C. performed in the bottom percentile of the nation in their 2008 standardized tests in math and science, it raised an alarm in the community. Why were the students performing so poorly in these two subjects? Parents, administrators, and policymakers began asking questions, which was appropriate. As it turned out, in both these areas, there was exceptionally high teacher turnover. Equally bad, classrooms were poorly equipped, there were insufficient textbooks, and students felt unmotivated. In this sense, the test scores were a warning indicator of endemic problems. If these problems are remedied, then criteria based tests can be used to measure the success of these corrections. If viewed this way, then the tests will be used as intended, as a powerful tool of learning rather than merely a way to assess students. Until policymakers adopt this view of standardized testing, they will not see the benefits they desire. 

Appropriate Use of Standardized Tests in a General Education

        A good general education should provide resources that cultivate mental and social skills, in addition to the “tools” and “facts” necessary to promote knowledge, thinking and learning. Part of the goal of an education is to create students who are genuinely interested in learning, or self-initiated learners. Education should be multidimensional and interdisciplinary. Students should be able to make connections with what they're learning in all of their classes and be able to apply that knowledge in other classes and to real life experiences outside the classroom. Education should be conducive to different types of learning that engage and promote creativity, not forcing students to learn how to perform on a test. 

Goals for the Future of Standardized Tests

        Clearly, standardized tests have drawbacks, and legitimate uses. As part of the future for these tests, the criteria for evaluating student performance nationwide should be examined. In addition to norm and criteria-based test scores, schools, and students, should be measured by three other criteria. The first of these is the overall letter grades throughout the school. Schools where most of the children are earning at least a “C” in all of their courses are clearly learning. Higher grades could indicate schools in a higher socio-economic district, where parental support is better. Grades lower than “C” are, like poor standardized test scores, a warning indicator for further research. The second is to examine the school itself. Teams of educators should evaluate underperforming schools to pinpoint root cases of failure. As in the case of the District of Columbia, some departments may be understaffed or poorly equipped. The third, and most comprehensive, change that needs to take place is change in the teaching profession itself. As noted earlier, teachers are poorly paid, held in low esteem, and come from the lower ranks of their graduating classes. The United States needs to generally improve entry level teacher salaries to attract more qualified applicants. Teachers also need to be given more autonomy in how they teach. The emphasis on standardized test scores to determine whether to fire or retain a teacher should be deemphasized as quickly as possible, as this is only degrading the quality of education. Part of what attracts teachers to the profession is the ability to be creative, to combine their experience, teaching skills, and knowledge of many topics to give students the good grounding they need to excel in education, and in life.

        Standardized testing is off to a difficult start in the United States, but holds considerable hope for the future. Creative changes in the tests, perhaps from multiple combinations of essay and short answers, might help to promote critical thinking in a different manner. This would give a wider perspective of how well the student is actually performing, helping children who are better writers than test takers, emphasizing more on creative applications. Mixing disciplines within the test would also be helpful, and show how student use, for example, history in connection with mathematics. Use of the tests as only one of a wider, comprehensive, set of measurements to gauge school would also be helpful. Focusing on using the tests to see how much the students have improved would help change teacher and student perception of the exams as a way to potentially punish them, to a way to potentially reward their efforts and new understandings reached. Such a revolutionized point of view could only benefit the school systems.


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Works Cited

1. Neuman, W.L. “Social Research Methods Qualitative and Quantitative

      Approaches.” (6th ed.)2006. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

2. "Standardized Tests." The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia. Abington: Helicon, 2009.

      Credo Reference. 25 September 2010.

3. Lemov, Doug. “Teaching For Champions.” 2009. Barnes and Hall.

4.“Parents Guide to Standardized Tests for Grades 3-5: A Complete Guide  

      to Understanding Tests and Preparing Your Child for a Successful

      Test-Taking Experience. Simon & Shuster. 2003.

5. Shank, G. D. “Qualitative research: A personal skills approach.”(2nd

      ed.)2006. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

6. McBride, Daniel. "Scores Will Be Used to Evaluate Teachers." The

      Thibodaux Daily Comet. Web. 23 Sept. 2010. 


7. Thomas, R. M., & Brubaker, D.L. “Standardized Tests: Uses and 

      Misuses.” 2000. Westport,CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

8. Grytting, By Wayne. " Why Teach in a System That Rewards Test Scores

      Rather than Passion? Seattle Times Newspaper." The Seattle Times

      Newspaper. Web. 22 Sept. 2010. <


9. Jandt, F.E. “New Bedford Schools Report: Implications for the Future.” New

      Bedford Times. 24 May, 2008.

10. McCabe, Cynthia. "New Study: Merit Pay Does Not Boost Student Achievement." 

      NEA Today. Web. 25 Sept. 2010. <



Paul Grobstein's picture

standardized tests, more cons than pros?

There is here, it seems to me, a useful effort to lean over backwards to give validity to standardized testing as a useful component of educational practice.  Yes, such tests can show where there are problems, but certainly the problem in Washington, DC was apparent without the test results?  And what about all the downsides of standardized testing outlined?  Yes, one can imagine "creative changes" in the tests, but at some point wouldn't such changes be so great that the result would no longer be "standardized"?  Maybe there is a genuine incompatibility between

"students who are genuinely interested in learning, or self-initiated learners. Education should be multidimensional and interdisciplinary. Students should be able to make connections with what they're learning in all of their classes and be able to apply that knowledge in other classes and to real life experiences outside the classroom. Education should be conducive to different types of learning that engage and promote creativity, not forcing students to learn how to perform on a test."

and standardized testing?