How Important Are Standardized Tests?

The standardized test stands as one of the most iconic elements of our educational system. I personally have vivid memories of sitting in the school cafeteria with my freshly sharpened #2 pencils and hundreds of other children as I progressed through a series of tests intended to assess my academic proficiency. Now many years later (though I won’t tell exactly how many!) these tests continue to hold a place of tremendous emphasis, to the point that many schools proudly display their students’ standardized test scores on their marketing materials as proof of the quality of their education. 

At face value this emphasis on standardized tests seems attractive. They assess a range of academic skills, and the results come neatly packaged with simple percentages that we can use to rack and stack students and schools according to all sorts of different criteria. Admittedly, it is attractive to have a standard of measurement — an academic yard stick of sorts — to gauge the progress of students and schools. And what better way to do so for a school than by testing how well students can perform academic tasks? This all makes sense on the surface.

Unfortunately, though, if we cast a discerning gaze toward this approach, we’ll find that it has some serious limitations. Standardized tests, while valuable in assessing certain aspects of core academic skills, measure only a very small slice of a well-rounded education. For example, they are utterly devoid of higher orders of thinking such as critical thinking or creativity, as well as the so-called “soft skills” such as leadership, communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, and resilience (i.e. grit and growth mindset), all of which are far more correlated with success in life than standardized test scores themselves. Nor do they assess curiosity, courage, the love of learning, or one’s character.

To be fair, these soft-skills traits are admittedly a bit more squishy. It’s not exactly easy to measure a child’s leadership capacities, emotional intelligence, or resiliency, and certainly not in a highly scalable format that can be efficiently administered to millions of students. It’s much easier to ask them to do some arithmetic and move on. 

You may be thinking that all of this discussion on the value of standardized tests is a defensive move to cover that our learners don’t perform well on them. Quite the opposite actually. At Acton Academy NW Indy, our learners do very well on standardized tests. On average they are well above grade level, and over 10% of our learners have achieved a perfect score on at least one category subtest.

Despite this success, we will never lead with that as proof of the quality of what goes on here. In fact, we won’t even mention it unless you bring it up because, frankly, we don’t place a lot of value in standardized tests and believe there are far more important things happening here that they simply can’t measure – like, for example, the learner who came to us intimidated to read anything other than a graphic novel who now loves deep books. Or the learner who came to us with an aversion to writing who is now joyfully churning out thousands of words in a series of stories that he is bursting with enthusiasm to share. Or the learner who came to us with a significant fear of speaking, who has grown into a leader in the studio, regularly speaking in front of large groups.  Yes, these things are harder to measure and don’t make a catchy headline on a brochure, but our families will tell you that the growth they’ve seen in them is very real and profound.

Want proof? Head over to our reviews section and read the comments that our families have made about their experience at Acton Academy NW Indy.

You know what you won’t see? A single reference to standardized test scores.

You know what you will find? All kinds of comments about their child’s character, love of learning, leadership, and grit.

I think as parents we intuitively know the limitations of these tests. Yes, they have their place. But at the end of the day, I think we all know that they don’t measure what matters most. So as you read those reviews, pay attention to what our families are saying. Even though their learners are progressing well academically, that’s not what is most important to them. It’s the deeper, more difficult things to measure that they are commenting on, even though they don’t fit neatly into a spreadsheet. 

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