The Frustrations of Standardized Tests

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

I’m in agony this morning.  I’m administering a standardized test that is mandated by the Alberta government.  Although I can appreciate an attempt at some checks and balances within our education system, these tests are very frustrating.

  1. Students bear the stress of teacher evaluation

I tell my students that this test is about me, not them; that it’s a test to ensure that I’m teaching the things that I’m told I must teach.  And yet, in spite of that, they are the ones who bear the stress here.  My students are shouldering the burden for an assessment of me.  How is this okay?

  1. They are overdone and unfairly concentrated in one grade

In Alberta, we administer standardize tests at specific grade levels.  So, my grade six students are currently writing five standardized tests (more than that for Alberta’s unfortunate French immersion students).  If we really feel that such standardized testing was necessary, could we at least spread it out and test one core subject each year, rather than jamming a test for every core subject into one year?

  1. Serious grade distortion

This one is frustrating beyond words.  So much has been done in the way of assessment research in recent years, and yet we are not utilizing the findings of this data to ensure that our tests are sound assessments.  There are so many levels of distortion in these tests, rendering them inaccurate and unfair:

  • Cultural references and vocabulary assumptions

Most of my students are ESL students.  Though not all are coded as such, most are fluently bilingual in at least one other language.  As such, many of these students struggle with the vocabulary that is assumed on these tests.  This morning the students are writing a math test, but numerous students have spoken to me about specific vocabulary words that they do not understand.  So, if and when they get a question wrong due to a vocabulary limitation, it will be reported out as a limitation in their math ability, not in their vocabulary.  How is this accurate?

  • A test of test taking abilities

There is some major distortion in this test due to the recording method of the questions.  This morning my students are struggling hugely, not with the mathematical concepts, but with figuring out how to convey their answer in the manner requested.  I have answered a steady stream of questions from students who have calculated the answer to their question but have no idea how to convey their answer in the manner requested in the test booklet. When they get a question wrong because they didn’t understand the way to record their answer, it will be reported out as a deficiency in their math ability, rather than a deficiency in understanding some of the confusing recording methods they were asked to use.

  • A test of speed

The students are given a time limit for their PAT tests.  When students get a question wrong because they didn’t finish the test, it will be reported out as a deficiency to compute that mathematical concept.  They might have full knowledge as to how to carry out that mathematical task, but it will be reported as no knowledge – due to time, not ability.


I work hard to grow in my understanding of assessment and to improve my practice in this area.  I look forward to the day when my attempt at sound assessment is not limited by poor choices that are provincially mandated.

Again, let me reiterate that I do appreciate some degree of built-in accountability for teachers.  However, it frustrates me greatly when I’m at the mercy of higher powers who have developed an inaccurate, overdone, stressful test that I must administer.  I work hard to grow in my understanding of assessment and to improve my practice in this area.  I look forward to the day when my attempt at sound assessment is not limited by poor choices that are provincially mandated.  I’m grateful that Alberta Education is looking to revamp our testing methods, but I have little confidence that it will be an improvement in any of these areas.  I’m curious what other nations do to deal with teacher accountability and would be interested in learning more about how this issue is addressed globally.  I’m not sure what the solution is, but I am convinced that there must be a better way.

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