Sometimes some people confuse themselves over the terms “education standards” and “standardized testing.” (That’s to say, not everyone confuses themselves over the terms or everyone does not confuse themselves all the time — a logic pun which points out that the political situation in education is fraught with confusion from whichever angle you look at it.)

A set of statements and/or committee reports detailing a school district’s pedagogy constitute “education standards.” These statements can range from loose principles such as, “all students will demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic,” to strict mandates like, “all students must score at least 1900 on the SAT.” State and district standards fall somewhere in between the vague and the draconian, usually, mixing the two with extraordinary bureaucratic flair.

A test scored on a normalized scale distributing test-takers into statistical groups comprises a “standardized test.” The “standard” here refers to the fact that, when designing and scoring the exam, the testing company tries to approximate the likelihood that any given student will achieve any given test score. That is to say, if you are no less and no more intelligent than other test-takers, and if you have received no test-specific preparation, you will most likely receive a normalized score that falls in the middle range of all test scores.

The standardized test is a complicated beast; good (also read: expensive) standardized tests (like the LSAT) carry higher statistical validity than less good (also read: cheap) exams (like a pop quiz). The stronger tests are actually a good indication of what a student know relative to other students.

This last part is important. If a district sets its education standard to standardized testing – and nothing else – then the only indication of learning progress will be progress relative to other students. Therein lies the source of much confusion; so long as good tests, tests which are statistically evaluated and updated following each issuing, provide the benchmark for success, there can be little indication of what students have learned other than what they have learned in relation to other students.

The bottom line? Standards-based reform, a kind of pedagogy that ties classroom learning to standardized testing, does not provide for a progressive learning experience. It does provide competitive learning. But in order for that to be any good, the competition needs to be just as good or better.


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