Four years ago, the General Assembly from The United Nations gathered to discuss ways to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. After a myriad of research and countless hours of debate, the General Assembly agreed that the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will aid us to reach the goal of a better future. In general, the SDGs aim to solve global challenges such as inequality, poverty, climate, and environmental degradation. The fourth SDG is ‘Quality Education’— ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all (Martin, 2015).
The UN says “Access to inclusive education can help equip locals with the tools required to develop innovative solutions to the world’s greatest problems”(2015). In other words, the fourth goal, Quality Education, is the foundation of other Sustainable Development Goals; if we can augment the educational quality, especially for the underdeveloped and secluded communities, the future generation would break from the poverty cycle and would be more aware of the global challenges, thus continue the effort for a better future. The Quality Education will create a higher chance for the future generation to initiate prominent solutions against the ascending global problems. The UN is positive that if we can offer quality education without leaving anyone behind (2015), it will become a key for securing sustainability of our actions for a better future and reaching the other SDGs. I strongly agree with this statement; the world is slowly but surely approaching the goal of Quality Education—the solution for a better and sustainable future.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS Data Centre), since 2000, the percentage of out-of school children among primary school has declined from 40% to 22% in sub-Saharan Africa and from 20% to 6% in South Asia. Moreover, enrollment in primary education in developing countries has reached 91 percent. For the first time in 2017, the percentage of the American population age 25 and older that completed high school or higher levels of education reached 90 percent (Bureau, 2018, p. 2). The statistics show that more children and young adults are attending school to get secondary education globally. However, there is a long way to go. Just to name three major educational challenges, the UN statistics show us that there are over 265 million children who do not attend school; one school out of seven is over-crowded; the educational gap between rich and poor has worsened 21% since 2008. Therefore, the positive statistics alone cannot confirm whether we are getting closer to the goal of Quality Education: a better assessment system is needed.
The accurate assessment system
In response to emerging educational challenges, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed in 2002 by former President George W. Bush, intended to use Federal government’s influence and standardized tests to raise the bar for students’ academic achievement. The goal of this legislation was to make every student proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 regardless of background, race, family income, or disability (No child left behind act, 2001). One of the major foci of the NCLB was to, just like the fourth SDG Quality Education, close the achievement gap of students by providing a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education. To confirm the students are meeting the federal requirements, NCLB demanded each state to establish state academic standards and a state testing system (No child left behind act, 2001). Under the 2002 law, therefore, U.S. states were required to take standardized test in reading and mathematics from students in grades 3–8 and once in high school. States and schools accordingly started to develop and increase the standardized testing.
The standardized testing is based on ‘backwards curriculum design’, determining what the students need to learn or to know, then designing the instruction to reach the desired knowledge. In other words, standardized tests focus on essential contents and skills, eliminating time-wasting activities that do not profit the students. It is possible for students to gain proficiency in reading and mathematics because of the backwards curriculum design. The US Department of Education stated in 2004 that “If teachers cover subject required by the standards, and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they are tested.”
Moreover, by assessing how students are doing each year, it creates an opportunity to analyze the current formal school curriculum and determine whether it needs alteration or improvement. If the standardized test scores show national or state decrease, it is obvious that the students are lacking in some skills from the basic benchmark that was created from the NCLB Act. Plus, the standardized tests can tell us which part of the curriculum needs more attention and what school system is performing better than the others. Through analyzing the data and statistics given by the standardized tests, legislators can make decisions to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and of our school systems. The basic benchmark of standardized test not only inspires improvement but also creates non-discriminatory. The content of the standardized test is the same for every student and school, thus making objective measures of student achievement. Without them, policy makers would have to rely on individual schools and teachers who would most likely want to produce favorable results. Human subjectivity may influence the results of any test; however, standardized testings do not require human to grade them, they are graded by machines—reliable and not subject to bias.
In terms of the design and the reliability, standardized testing is fit for measuring the progress of the fourth SDG, Quality Education. The purpose of the Quality Education and NCLB is identical—to ensure inclusive and equitable high-quality education. Just like NCLB, there are many global standardized tests to assess the educational achievement of the world. Therefore, in theory, using the same assessment system that is working for one should work for the other. On a global scale, many alterations are made to improve the standardized tests, but the main concept remains the same. However, are standardized tests valid for measuring the progress of Quality Education of the schools and students around the globe? Many educational theorists and researchers point out facts that show disadvantages of the standardized testing.
The flawed testing system
For many decades, the scores of standardized test were viewed as the dominant factor for determining academic success. In the recent years, however, more and more U.S. colleges and universities are making test scores optional for the admissions requirement. Globally, even the universities that accept students solely based on their standardized test scores, such as Tokyo University and Mongolian National University, are now requiring personal statements and teacher recommendations. Globally, the standardized test scores are becoming less and less important to accept students for colleges and universities. They are agreeing that the standardized test scores are not the best representation of students’ achievement in and beyond college. Only from the statistics, after the NCLB Act, U.S. slipped from 18th in the world in Mathematics on the Program for International Student Assessment, to 31st place in 2009 with a similar drop in science and no change in reading. Many researchers and universities conducted researches and studies to support standardized testing is unreliable measure of student performance.
A May 2011 National Research Council report found no evidence on efficient test-based incentive programs. “Despite using them (the standardized tests) for several decades, policy makers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education.” Moreover in 2001, a study published by the Brookings Institution found that even though there were improvement in test score, it does not necessarily mean changes in learning: 50 to 80% of the year-over-year test score improvements were temporary and caused by fluctuations that had nothing to do with long-term learning.
Standardized testing discriminates towards non-English-speaking students and students with special needs. English language learners take tests in English before they could master the language; thus, they are easily confused by tests that contain unfamiliar cultural references. Also, special education students take the same tests as other students; so, they receive few of the accommodations usually provided to them as part of their individualized education plans. It is fair to It is fair to claim that the student of color and disability are unfairly tested.
Even if the student do not have a disability, they might have a severe stress from standardized tests. Especially for young children, who are usually not mentally ready for time pressure, standardized tests are able to produce gripping anxiety and make young children vomit or cry, or both. The Sacramento Bee in 2002 reported that “test-related jitters, especially among young students, are so common that the ‘Stanford-9 exam’ in California comes with instructions on what to do with the test booklet in case a student vomits on it.” Students are required to take 112 mandated standardized tests from kindergarten classes to the 12th grade, excluding the pilot and mock tests. All the tests make some students constantly in stress, in extreme cases, leading to depression.
Other than assessing students’ basic knowledge, standardized tests are used to reward and punish teachers and schools. According to NCLB, if student standardized test scores did not meet stated goals for test score growth, schools faced penalties such as a loss of federal funding or the diversion of federal funds to pay for private tutoring, transportation costs, and other services (Karp, 2006, p. 181) the It may sound like a fair judgment—if one school has a better score than other schools, it must mean that the students are thriving and learning better and the teachers are teaching better. Unfortunately, this reward and punish system encourage schools and teachers to cheat for their own gain. Many teachers, usually from struggling schools, alter, inflate, or fabricate test scores on student achievement tests and intentionally correct students’ answers on the standardized tests.
A 2011 USA Today investigation of six states and Washington DC found 1610 suspicious anomalies in year-over-year test score gains. A confidential January 2009 memo, prepared for the DC school system by an outside analyst, and uncovered in April 2013, revealed that 191 teachers in 70 DC public schools were “implicated in possible testing infractions”, and nearly all teachers at one DC elementary school had “students whose test papers showed high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures.” (Greg Toppo, 2013) Another similar incident is the Atlanta cheating scandal. In Atlanta, 11 educators used to attend weekend ‘pizza parties’ to correct students’ answers. Ultimately, in April 2015, 11 of those district employees were convicted of racketeering which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Even though these are rare occasions, not just students, teachers and schools are intentionally correcting the students’ initial answers of the standardized tests to get rewards for themselves.
Some are punished for the illegal behavior, but if the multiple choice format or the reward and punish system were different, those 11 employees were not be sentenced to go to prison. Because of not only the reward system but also the public pressure regarding student test performance, regardless of the actual complexity behind the score, makes the students, teachers, principals, and school feel an immense weight (McNeil, 2000, p. 89). In conclusion, the schools are under so much pressure to get a high percentage on standardized tests and are being told what to do and teach.
The several researches and studies, however, present the inadequate and unequal assessment of an academic achievement through the standardized test. In short, it cannot equally measure the educational development of the students in one classroom, let alone the world. When the standardized testing system has many flaws just in the United States, it would be more complex to use the system to assess the global improvement of Quality Education.
The solution for a better system
Some theorists in the educational field advise to abandon the standardised test completely and propose different ways of assessing academic achievement and Quality Education. Within the current context, however, standardized tests function as the core for all educational policy (Picower, 2015, p.22). The standardized test is deeply rooted in the global educational system that makes is nearly impossible to abandon. Contrary to their belief, I strongly think that, if approached correctly, standardized test can truly be the valid measurement of worldwide educational progress. We need to measure student learning and there is no other adequate and comprehensive way of measuring learning as of yet. The following paragraphs will explore why I argue, in contrary to the common belief, that the standardized testing has the potential to assess Quality Education.
On the other hand, standardized test ensures equal education for all. The basic benchmark of the standardized test draws attention to the groups who need special attention. If we want to offer fair and equal quality education for all, there must be the core curriculum that can be measured with a test, so that proper actions can be taken to improve the situation. Without the standardized test, it is nearly impossible to know the difference between the academic achievement of Mongolian students and American students. That leads to my other point: if built properly, standardized tests can be critical to secure quality education to minority students.
Many criticize the standardized testing for promoting poverty and segregation. Those discrimination, however, do not exist directly as a result of the standardized system. Rather, the system reflects the discrimination towards race, disability, and socioeconomic status that exist in the society. More thoughtful and inclusive way of designing the standardized test will ensure the halt of the reflection of social discrimination. It can even help educators to address weaknesses early in a student’s academic career, helping to prevent handicaps to their future.
As for the test related stress, The US Department of Education stated that “Although testing may be stressful for some students, testing is a normal and expected way of assessing what students have learned.” Also, in 2001, University of Arkansas found that “a vast majority of students do not exhibit stress and have a positive attitude towards standardized testing programs”. The study is before NCLB Act in 2002; thus, the data might be hinting that too much testing is stressful, but reasonable amount of standardized testing can healthily promote educational improvement.
The world needs critical thinkers who will tackle fatal global issues such as inequality, poverty, climate, and environmental degradation. Even now, many of the world’s brightest minds are working to find the solutions for the global issues. One example is Sustainable Development Goals from the UN. Reaching the SDGs by 2030 might sound nearly impossible; however, with deliberate plan and precise measuring system, it is attainable. Especially for the fourth goal, Quality Education, standardized testing system is crucial for smooth operation.
Standardized testing can measure the academic achievement of the students around the globe while securing equal education to the minority; beyond the standardized testing lies a sustainable better future. Many obstacles, however, will arise as the world attempts to reach its goal for the future. It is our responsibility as the citizen of the world to take action for ourselves, our future, and most importantly, our Mother Earth.