Standardized Tests: A Blessing or a Curse?

February 17, 2012

 In a statement earlier this month after the Obama administration granted 10 states, including New Jersey, a pass from many of the provisions of the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal education law, the impact of standardized testing on the classroom was raised.

The White House press office said President Barack Obama believes that No Child Left Behind “is driving the wrong behaviors, from teaching to the test to federally determined, one-size-fits-all interventions.”

“Teaching to the test” — it’s one of the great complaints from teachers, parents, administrators and education reformers and theorists.

And yet, how can students truly be assessed on what they’ve learned without testing? It would seem there has to be some testing that’s standardized across districts and from state to state to measure both student learning and schools’ teaching.

In New Jersey, there’s definitely some frustration among educators with the structure and format of the standardized tests that kids must take. Rather than focus so much on summative testing that measures only what’s been learned over the course of an entire school year, many educators say testing can be far more useful when it is formative — done throughout the year so it can help guide students and teachers on what needs to be improved.

That may be the direction that things are going with what the president and federal education officials are urging and what education researchers are showing through studies done on the various forms of student assessment.

What tests?

In New Jersey, there are different standardized tests that students may take at various grade levels in public schools.

Primarily, it’s the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (ASK) tests for all students from third grade through eighth grade. Those tests, which are given over the course of four or five straight days each spring, measure kids on their proficiency in math and language arts. In high school, students must pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) to graduate.

There’s also a two-day state biology competency standardized test that all first-year biology students must take.

And there are standardized tests that districts choose on their own. Gaining popularity in New Jersey are the formative Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests that are given three times a year in whichever curriculum areas districts choose.

Complaints seem to center on the New Jersey ASK tests, since they get the most attention, take up the most classroom time and seem to have the greatest impact on teachers and students.


Donna Chiera, current president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey and the Perth Amboy Federation, would change how the New Jersey ASK tests are given. She says it’s wrong to have young children sitting at their desks for an hour or more for a single test period and doing that every day for a week.

If she could change something about New Jersey’s standardized tests for elementary and middle school students, it would be to space the tests out and not jam them all into a few days.

Dorothy Varygiannes, a lecturer, adviser and field supervisor for aspiring teachers at Monmouth University’s School of Education, previously worked with the state Department of Education and helped craft the ASK tests when they were created.

Varygiannes says a change she’d make would be to ensure that the people making the decisions about standardized tests at the state level “get back in the trenches” teaching in schools.

Jim O’Neill, the interim superintendent of the Roxbury (Morris County) schools, said the standardized tests kids take in New Jersey just don’t measure the correct skills.

“In this day and age, we know that the best workplace skills are transferable; which employee is a quick study? Who can apply what they have learned in other positions to the new position? We do not test honesty, creativity, innovation, group skills of communication (listening and expressing yourself well). Since these tests are expensive, we make believe the skills are not important, when I think many of us would argue they are the most important.”

A better model?

In the Cherry Hill (Camden County) schools, students this year for the first time started taking the MAP tests in reading and math. Developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, the MAP tests are standardized and done by students electronically so that scores are known the next day, not months down the road.

Marianne W. Gaffney, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said there’s great value in the MAP tests. Kids get assessed early in the year so teachers can see where there might be areas of need. They can then adjust their teaching to work with students on their areas needing improvement. Testing again in the winter and spring allows teachers to see if their efforts paid off.

In the K-8 Mount Laurel school district (Burlington County), students from second through eighth grade have been taking the MAP tests since before Sharon Vitella, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, arrived in the district five years ago.

She says the MAP tests are great because they let students know exactly where they are, and teachers know exactly how to group kids based on their learning needs.

Given the choice of the New Jersey ASK tests or the MAP tests, Vitella said her district would be better served, were it an option, to just have students take the MAP tests and forget about the ASK tests.

Here to stay

Whatever complaints New Jersey educators have about standardized tests and the pressure they create, few think they’re going to disappear, or even that they should altogether.

“Standardized tests provide us needed information about student strengths and areas of need and programmatic strengths and areas of need,” Vitella said.

Justin Barra, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said it simply enough: “You cannot have standards without measuring whether or not students and schools are meeting those standards. Assessments help us to determine where we as educators need to invest our resources at the state level, district level, and school level.”