Can Standardized Tests Inform Instruction?


In their article “Turning on the Lights,” published in the December 2013–January 14 issue of Educational Leadership® magazine, ASCD faculty members Jessica Hockett and Kristina Doubet make a strong case for the power of classroom-designed pre-assessments to guide instruction. Here, they caution against the common assumption that standardized tests can serve the same purpose.

Jan 10 postThere’s no doubt that authentic, teacher-developed, classroom-level pre-assessments can provide teachers with the best information to move students forward in their learning. However, we recognize that every public school in the United States uses standardized tests in one form or another: state-mandated accountability tests; benchmark assessments like the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP); achievement tests like the ITBS, SAT, and ACT; and district-developed common assessments.

So how can results from such standardized assessments be of use? What, exactly, can and can’t they do? Data from standardized tests can

* Provide one of manydata sources for district and school leaders to use in judging the effectiveness of programs and initiatives.

* Reveal general patterns of strengths and weaknesses across a district, within a school, within a grade level, and so on.

* Provide a reference point from which to discern and report general patterns of student growth over time.

* Give individual teachers a sense of their own instructional strengths, tendencies, and areas for growth relative to goals measureable by the test design and item format and content.

But data from standardized tests generally do not

* Allow teachers to see the actual test questions in a timely manner (that is, alongside student results).

* Provide individual student responses.

* Use item formats that would provide insight into a student’s thinking (why the student chose or gave a certain response).

* Align with specific unit or lesson goals that the teacher is aiming to address.

* Provide the most recent information about individual student performance.

* Reveal what instruction students need in order to progress in their learning.

In other words, data from standardized tests can be used to paint—in broad brushstrokes—an impressionist’s view of the learning landscape. But these data are not useful for the more exacting, demanding, and immediate task of designing meaningful learning experiences for all students.

Unfortunately, too many teachers we encounter in our professional development work have been led to believe that the data that standardized tests generate is “formative” and can be used to plan or differentiate instruction. The truth is, only classroom-based pre-assessments and formative assessments can show teachers where students are now—and what they need to grow.