Many countries of the world rely on some form of standardised testing to evaluate students’ level of knowledge and determine whether they are ready to proceed to the next stage of their educational journey. In the US, for instance, all public school students in grades three to eight are required to take an annual assessment in reading and maths at the end of the year, as well as once in high school. The test administered at the end of high school is called the SAT. It’s a multiple-choice exam designed to predict whether high school students are college-ready and it’s been a staple of the education system in the United States for a number of years. In the UK, on the other hand, students are required to take General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams at the end of compulsory education. Depending on the school they are attending, students may need to take anywhere between 7 and 12 GCSEs, with maths, science, and English always being obligatory.
Some of the other countries that use standardised tests include China, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, and South Africa. Since these tests tend to vary wildly from one country to the next, it can be difficult to compare the performance of students who come from different countries. This is where international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) come in. Conducted for the first time in 2000 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA is an international assessment that measures how 15-year-old students perform in reading, mathematics, and science. The last PISA test was administered in 2018 and included more than 600,000 students from 79 countries of the world, with China coming out on top in all three disciplines.
However, standardised tests have come under increasing scrutiny over the years, with some critics going so far as to call them discriminatory against students who come from less privileged backgrounds. According to a report published by the nonprofit Brookings Institute, nearly 60 per cent of white students achieve the college readiness benchmark in maths, as opposed to less than one-quarter of Black students and one-third of Hispanic or Latino students. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that students from wealthier families can afford to pay for better services, including test preparation programmes, which are often out of reach for their less affluent peers. Other notable issues associated with standardised tests include delayed results and the fact that they require a great amount of time and money to administer. Some experts also question whether they actually help improve students’ academic results at all.
Schools go test-optional
That is why educational institutions are starting to move away from relying too heavily on standardised tests in their admissions processes. In fact, according to the advocacy group FairTest, more than 1,800 four-year colleges have decided to make standardised tests optional for fall 2022, which means students will be able to choose whether they want to take them or not without affecting their chances of being accepted. Instead, these institutions will now place more emphasis on other aspects of a student’s application, including their personal statement, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities. Others, like the UC and Cal State systems, have announced that standardised test scores will no longer be considered when making admissions or scholarship decisions. These developments were largely welcomed by students across the country. “When I heard schools were keeping things test-optional, I was relieved,” says Orange High School senior Melissa Medina. “I’ve always thought that standardised testing limits the potential of many students, and it places labels on them. Just because you aren’t a good test taker doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing more. Now that I don’t have to worry about test scores, I can really just show who I am. I can show what kind of student I am in other areas. That says much more than just a score.”
How standardised tests are changing
The growing adoption of the test-optional approach was largely necessitated by the pandemic. Once schools were closed, students had nowhere to take their SAT exams, which were ill-suited to an at-home format. As a result, the US Department of Education decided to allow states to cancel their annual tests. However, even after schools reopened, many of them chose to keep the tests optional. Even those who decide to stick with standardised tests will be looking at some major changes. The College Board, a nonprofit that develops the SAT and other standardised tests and curricula, recently announced that the SAT exam will take on a new, digital format in 2023. The test will still be administered at school under the supervision of a proctor, but students will be able to take them on their own laptop or tablet or use a school-issued device. What’s more, the new test will be adaptive, which means that the level of difficulty of questions will constantly change based on a student’s performance. Other notable changes to the SAT include a shortened length of the exam, which will be reduced from three to two hours, authorised use of calculators, and expedited score results, which will now be available in a matter of days, rather than weeks. “What I hope and want is for students to be able to come in and just focus on demonstrating what they’ve learned and what they can do in the core reading, writing, and maths areas,” explains Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments at the College Board. “And (to) have a lot of the stress around the test, the rigidity, the policies, all melt away.”
A similar trend was observed in the UK, where GCSE exams were put on hold for the last two years due to the pandemic and replaced by teacher assessments. While some believe that this resulted in grade inflation, with a much higher proportion of students receiving top grades, others claim that teachers assessments offer a much more accurate reflection of student performance. “Exams are a bit like a snapshot, a photograph – you capture an instant, it’s a form of sampling – whereas teacher assessment allows teachers to observe student performance over a much longer period, in a rather more complex way, taking into account lots of different pieces of work and arriving at a holistic judgement,” explains Simon Lebus, head of Ofqual, the exams watchdog. “We can feel satisfied that it’s likely to give a much more accurate and substantial reflection of what their students are capable of achieving.” Nevertheless, the UK government announced that GCSE exams will return in 2022 but will include certain special measures to ensure that students are assessed fairly. These include a choice of topics in some GCSE exams like English literature and history, support materials for maths, and advance information on the exam content to help students revise. “We’ve put fairness at the heart of our approach and listened to pupils, teachers and parents,” adds Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi. “The measures we’re putting in place will help reduce the impact of the significant disruption this group of young people have had to face – allowing them to move onto the next stage of their lives.”
Alternative assessment methods
Of course, not all countries rely equally on standardised exams. Finland, for instance, practically doesn’t use standardised exams at all, while Israel introduced alternative assessments into the regular curriculum in some of its high schools. And yet, this lack of standardised testing doesn’t seem to have any impact on student performance, with Finland constantly outperforming the United States on the PISA test. Recent technological advancements have also enabled us to address some of the main issues typically associated with standardised tests, such as long testing times, cultural bias, and limited usefulness to teachers. One of the most effective ways to reduce testing time is to implement matrix sampling, in which students are provided with a representative sample of assessment questions. There are two different ways to approach matrix sampling. In the first one, evaluators choose a limited set of test questions that will enable them to estimate results for the entire test. This means that no student will have to take the entire exam. One of the most notable assessments that employ this approach is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been used to assess what US students know since the 1970s. The second approach to matrix sampling requires test developers to choose specific test questions that will be given to all students and used to predict their performance on the entire test.
Another way to improve student assessment is to replace summative assessments administered at the end of the school year with tests that are administered throughout the year. In fact, such an approach has already been trialled in several US states as part of the assessment pilot launched by ESSA. This innovative approach provides teachers with valuable information about student performance, which allows them to identify those who are not meeting critical benchmarks and react in a timely manner by adjusting their instruction in a way that will help those students close their knowledge gaps. According to a recent survey conducted by Pearson, as many as 84 per cent of teachers believe that high stakes assessments should be taken throughout the year. Finally, performance-based assessments enable students to demonstrate their knowledge and ability by performing a series of complex hands-on tasks, such as presenting and defending their work, or participating in individual or group projects. In addition to being more motivating to students and providing a more holistic overview of student work, performance-based assessments also allow educators to assess students’ skills at a much deeper level. Some of the most notable assessments that employ a performance-based approach include New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) and the New York Consortium on Performance Based Assessment.
Technological advancements have also made it possible for students to take some exams at home. This is usually done with the help of online proctoring software, which is designed to keep an eye on students and make sure they are not cheating on their exams. One such software is Proctorio, a fully automated, online proctoring service that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to monitor students during online exams and flag any instances of suspicious behaviour. At the end of the exam, the software generates a detailed exam integrity report, which includes a full recording of the exam, exam analytics, annotations, and colour-coded suspicion ratings. These can then be reviewed by an institution-approved representative to determine whether the integrity of the exam had been violated. Other notable examples of online proctoring software include ExamOnline, SpeedExam, Examus, and ProctorU. As we move forward into the future, other emerging technologies could also take on a more prominent role in the assessment process. Exams will become increasingly automated, adaptive, and personalised. There will also be a growing adoption of game-based assessment, which promises to make the entire process more engaging for students and improve their learning outcomes. Not far from now, exams may even be conducted entirely in virtual reality.
Pros and cons
Although standardised tests have attracted a great deal of controversy over the years, they do offer some advantages over other types of assessments. For one, standardised tests help teachers identify their students’ strengths and weaknesses and provide them with the assistance they need to address the gaps in their knowledge. They also promote equality, since all students are required to take the same exam under the same conditions. Standardised tests also provide teachers with valuable information about student progress, which they can use to improve their structure, activities, and instructional methods. However, as we already mentioned earlier, standardised tests also come with certain disadvantages that make us question their usefulness. One of the biggest disadvantages of standardised tests is that their results can be misleading and may not give a true picture of a student’s ability. This is partly due to the fact that standardised tests are often predictable and enable students to simply guess the correct answer. Standardised tests also put students under a lot of pressure and can have a negative impact on their confidence. Some critics also argue that standardised tests can perpetuate racial inequality and racial bias.
When it comes to alternative assessment methods, they also have their own set of pros and cons. Most notably, online proctoring software has been shown to induce greater levels of anxiety in students, which in turn affects their exam performance. There are also concerns about the algorithmic techniques the software uses to detect suspicious behaviour. For instance, Proctorio flags any behaviour that falls outside the norm as suspicious. This could mean anything from a student looking away from the screen for too long to making fewer keystrokes while answering a question. Some people believe that this could result in higher scrutiny of students suffering from physical and cognitive disabilities. Another major issue associated with online proctoring software is that facial recognition technology has been shown to discriminate against people of colour due to its inability to accurately identify those with darker skin tones. Then, there is also the matter of ethics, with many students believing that online proctoring software violates their privacy. On the other hand, online proctoring software also has some notable advantages. Among other things, it makes education more accessible for all, provides a secure online examination environment, and helps maintain academic integrity. It also eliminates physical infrastructure costs, boosts credibility, and allows for personalised scheduling of exams. Online proctoring software also ensures that all students receive equal treatment and provides valuable insights into students’ learning patterns.
For decades, standardised tests have been used to evaluate student progress and determine whether they are ready to proceed to the next stage of their education. However, this form of assessment has been exposed to some heavy criticism in recent years due to a notable discrepancy in the performance of students who come from different backgrounds. As a result, a growing number of schools are starting to experiment with alternative assessment methods, such as online proctoring software, matrix sampling, performance-based assessments, or game-based assessments. As technology continues to advance further, we may even conduct exams in virtual reality one day. These innovative assessment methods provide a number of advantages over standardised tests, which promises to accelerate their adoption in the upcoming period.