Tuesday, November 17, 2015

PF Dec 2015 - Standardized Tests are Beneficial - Con Position

Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.

For part 1 of this analysis, click here.

Con Position

This Con side of this topic, on face, seems to enjoy a bit of an advantage. For that reason, I spent a great deal of time addressing the Pro side.  I believe, there is a pre-existing bias in the community against standardized testing or more generally against too much involvement by government in the daily lives of individuals. Since PF judges are members of the community Con should be happy. Nevertheless, Con does need to do more than sit back and watch Pro struggle to convince a parent judge or possible teacher that government mandated, standardized testing is beneficial to education. Con still needs to advocate a position. In order to promote an appropriate position, I will address a few key points and leave the remaining research to you.

We begin with a broad swipe at the premise of standardized testing.

Gawthrop 2014:
By definition, a standardized test is a one-size fits all sort of thing, but that does not work in a system with widely varying curriculums. A test cannot offer questions that are perfectly aligned with all the different curriculums, in every school, in the United States. Even if a common curriculum were to be implemented (as Common Core is attempting to do), where every state and school had the same curriculum, that still does not mean that it would be the best curriculum for every student, or that those students would learn that curriculum at the same speed. There would still be wide variations between schools and standardized test results would remain unable to provide a complete picture of student performance.[18]

With that we will look specifically at several major contentions, specifically; the narrowing of the curriculum, how administrators stack the deck, the negative effects upon student self-image, the impact on minorities and the impact upon non-targeted students.

Narrowing the Curriculum

This argument is based upon the fact that government mandated, standardized tests have high-stakes implications for school systems since ultimately, the availability of funding is often linked to good test outcomes.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There is consistency in the research which implies that standardized testing has a negative impact on classroom instruction. One finding across several studies was that a greater amount of time was spent on instruction in the subject areas that were tested. Most of teachers’ time was spent on reading and math to the exclusion of other content areas such as history or science (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003; Diamond, 2007; Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). [5]

While, in general it may seem good to focus on certain areas of study which may be deemed 'weak' by government standards, there are only so many hours of in-class time.  The hours allowed to education are a kind of zero-sum quantity which means, more hours spent on topics like math or science means fewer hours available to things like social studies, art, music and similar non-target study areas.

Kok-Devries 2011:
Furthermore, teachers reported that a large amount of class time was spent on test preparation. Several teachers reported they narrowed the scope of the curriculum to prepare students for standardized testing. At times, instruction was abandoned completely and prepared practice tests were given to students (Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000).[5]

Further to the idea that class-time is a zero-sum quantity, a report by the National Council of Teachers of English makes the claim that teachers can lose between 60 and 110 hours per year on test related administrative tasks (NCTE 2014).  These kinds of duties produce an added burden which consumes time that could be better spent getting on with the business of teaching students.

Gaming the System

Another negative impact of standardized tests is their effect on administrative approaches to education. Part of the mission of school systems is to produce better citizens even if it is not always possible to bring every student up to a mandated level of scholastic achievement. The pressures of high-stakes tests can force administrators into adopting educational strategies which enhance their test system rankings rather than enhance the educational benefits of the students.

Schul 2011:
High-stakes testing not only has dramatic curricular effects, but there's also reason to believe that it diverts the attention of school leadership from the educative mission of the public school experience. Rather than focusing upon ways to provide a quality civic apprenticeship for students, school administrators across the nation have been distracted by the need to avoid the bite of NCLB's high-stakes accountability requirements through what have been coined within the circle of education policy makers as "gaming strategies." One such gaming strategy that school districts have used to meet NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements is exemption of students deemed as likely to struggle with taking the test. Exemption of this sort typically means placing students in special education where their test scores aren't included in the school's AYP data. Because the schools are more likely to exclude students who are low-performing on high stakes-tests, minorities and the economically disadvantaged are once again neglected by the system (Booher-Jennings and Beveridge, 2008). Ironically, with districts using such gaming strategies, NCLB ends up hurting the very students it intended to help.[2]

Musoleno and White also note the propensity of school systems to "game", the system in order to live up to government mandated standards.  This gaming strategies have a wide range impacts which over-limits the ability of instructors to offer broad educational benefits.

Musoleno & White 2010:
In another discussion on standardized tests, Bracey (2009) asserted, “Schools under the gun to raise test scores increasingly rely on strategies that get immediate, but short-lived, results” (p. 34). This tendency is further supported by those noting a shift in instructional tendency to incorporate test-taking skills. “Schools participate in gaming strategies to avoid adverse consequences, and teachers reshape instructional activities to mirror standardized tests” (Valli, Croninger, Chambliss, Graeber, & Buese, 2008, p. 51). Thus, NCLB has noticeably impacted educators’ content coverage and the use of instructional time. [2]

Categorical Damage

With the claim that schools are more likely to exempt low-performing students from high-stakes tests (Schul 2011:2) we see another major problem inherent in standardized testing. Not only do they provide a means to measure the performance of classes, schools, districts and state educational systems we must not lose sight of the fact they ultimately measure the performance of individual students. Students are highly-pressured by the requirement to do well on tests and suffer psychological effects when they fail to meet the standard.  As we have seen in the preceding discussion, administrators may categorize students according to the performance level on standardized tests and a student who knows he is considered an "underachiever" may be more prone to not try to attain higher levels of achievement.

Gawthrop 2014:
The price and efficiency of using standardized testing, to accumulate vast amounts of information, is quite appealing to administrators, who require such information to make policy decisions. Standardized tests have been increasingly used, “to make major decisions about students, such as grade promotion or high school graduation, and schools. More and more often, they also are intended to shape curriculum and instruction.”11 It is assumed that newer tests have overcome the flaws of past tests and are accurately able to measure important data that is worth “testing to”. However, this argument completely ignores the real-world limitations to what a standardized test can actually do.12 Tests are created to assess a student’s knowledge base; meaning test results are not representative of the student’s total academic ability. [7]

Despite the knowledge that "one size fits all" testing fails to adequately assess student abilities, the use of standardized testing is expanding. Kok-Devries explains the effect tests have on students is little understood.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There is less research to address how standardized testing impacts students. The research available indicated that standardized testing often had a negative impact on students. Anxiety and fear of failure on tests was observed across grade levels. Even children in elementary schools experienced high levels of anxiety and worry (Triplett & Barksdale, 2005). [6]

The NCTE soundly criticizes these negative impacts upon individual students and claims the categorization of students has profound repercussions on the ability of students to see themselves as capable of being successful.

NCTE 2014:
Another limitation on student learning results from the negative perceptions standardized tests can give to students about themselves and their own abilities. Studies show that elementary school students can begin to lose their sense of themselves as capable, able to do well in school and graduate, when they see unknown adults as controlling the administration and consequences of the standardized tests they are required to take. Even the very best ELA [English Language Arts] teachers have difficulty fostering learning in students who do not believe in their own abilities. Student learning is also limited by testing’s inflexible sorting of students into categories of proficient or not-proficient. It can be very difficult for students designated as not-proficient to imagine themselves as effective readers and writers. This test-generated binary is troubling because it gives no space to the full range of features that comprise effective reading and writing. [2] 

The personal impact of standardized testing on students is a very crucial impact for the Con, in my opinion.  A student's self-confidence and self-image is all important in fostering the kinds of attitudes required to succeed and yet the experts are warning that those students who fall below the standards imposed by the government are most at risk. This impact carries over to students motivation to apply for college.

Many institutions of high learning do not consider standardized tests as a major factor in college admissions as colleges tend to evaluate a wide range of criteria when selecting applicants. Some organizations are urging a more wide-spread movement among colleges to accept students who do not submit standardized test results based on research which shows these students often attain higher levels of  achievement than their test results would suggest.

Hiss, et al 2014:
Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply? At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, nonsubmitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but we are asking a much simpler and more direct question: if students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?

According to the Hiss study, while high-school GPAs do tend to predict collegiate success, test scores or lack of test scores do not.

Gawthrop 2014:
Universities understand that test scores do not reveal the whole picture about applicants and look at other factors besides test scores. It seems like common sense, that universities would look at more factors, in a potential student, than simply the test scores; but in compulsory education this is not the case. Test scores are typically the determiner of everything in grades K-12 and as a result, this can create adaptation. Test questions that require out of school knowledge, significantly affect students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The majority of these poorer students are minorities, either African American or Latino. The most provocative evidence on the negative effect of standardized testing is the tendency of African American students, to adapt to the expectations of standardized tests; these expectations being that black students will not do as well as white students.7[25]

Considering the impact on college admissions due to self-selection and adaption in schools with large minority populations, it is important to touch upon the the overall effect of standardized testing on minorities.

Minority Report

As has been widely reported since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), standardized tests often tend to further compartmentalize minority students and the time spent preparing the students for good test results detracted from other educational opportunities.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There seems to be significant agreement in the research that schools with a majority of minority students were most deeply affected by standardized testing (Lattimore, 2005; Lomax, West, Harmon, & Viator, 1995). It was the researchers’ view that minority children were not given equal educational opportunities, because a majority of their educational time was spent on test preparation. Furthermore, most of the instruction of the students did not promote higher level thinking skills (Diamond, 2007; Lattimore, 2005; Watanabe, 2007). [6]

Gawthrop looks further into the impact of standardized tests upon the mindsets of minority students even prior to taking the tests and suggests that under-performance is an adaptation strategy,

Gawthrop 2014:
A conservative economist, Gary Becker, found that disadvantaged minorities made poor decisions about investing in their own future based on their perception, of their own capabilities, which were shaped by societal expectations. For Becker, “the beliefs of employers, teachers, and other influential groups that minority members are less productive can be self-fulfilling” where members of disadvantaged factions will, “underinvest in education, training, and work skills” which subsequently make these groups less productive. This illustrates how adaptation by minority groups, to societal and cultural expectations, creates a cost that effects the starting position of these groups; meaning they do not enjoy equal status in an “objective” standardized test.[26]

Targeting the Middle

It seems there is a fair amount of evidence which shows that when schools focus on the test performance of the those who tend to center around the fringes of good test performance, effort to improve these groups tend to have detrimental effects on those students at the very top of the achievement scale.

Havdala 2010:
One of the best known studies on high achieving students is by Tom Loveless (2008), who examined the impact of NCLB on high achieving students. He utilized national student-level data from the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, one of the nation’s oldest exams and one that is administered to a random sampling of schools around the country.  He defined students at the 10th percentile as low achieving students and students at the 90th percentile as high achieving students, and tested the possibility that, since NCLB, the scores of high achieving students on the NAEP had slowed relative to those of lower achieving students. He analyzed these groups’ NAEP scores over time, using 2002, the year that NCLB was passed, as the significant year in his regressions. His research confirmed his hypothesis, indicating over a year’s worth of improvement of learning in low achieving students. Though high achieving students did not stop improving, their progress had slowed drastically since 2002.[3] 

And it may be intuitive to conclude that when the focus is upon those students who represent the middle of the road, that is, not the top tier of achievers and not the bottom, not only is the top tier receiving less attention, but the impact on the bottom is all the more profound.

Havdala 2010:
In contrast to Loveless, Carnoy and Loeb, and Reback, a wide array of studies have found an increasingly large gap between low and high achieving schools as a result of high stakes exams. Neal and Schanzenbach (2007) analyzed test scores in the Chicago school district from 2001 to 2002, a period when Chicago Public Schools shifted from a system of low stakes testing to a high stakes system. Though it was unclear whether high achieving students made any progress, low achieving students continued to lag far behind others. Only those students who were initially around the proficiency threshold had a significant improvement in scores. Such findings indicated the possibility that teachers focused their efforts on those students they felt could be pushed over the threshold, at the cost of those who were far above or far below (reflecting the threshold findings of Reback).[4]

For all these reasons and more, we urge a Con ballot.


Gawthrop , J (2014), Measuring Student Achievement: A Study of Standardized Testing and its Effect on Student Learning, Measuring Student Achievement, accessed 11/11/2016 at: http://my.jessup.edu/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/sites/39/2014/04/Gawthrop_Jeremiah_Final.pdf

Havdala, Robert J. (2010) "The Impact of High Stakes Standardized Testing on High and Low Achieving School Districts:
The Case of the MCAS," Undergraduate Economic Review: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Hiss, W, et al (2014), DEFINING PROMISE: OPTIONAL STANDARDIZED TESTING POLICIES IN AMERICAN COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS. accessed 11/10/2015 at: http://www.nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Documents/DefiningPromise.pdf

Kok-DeVries, M (2011), STANDARDIZED TESTING AND THE IMPACT ON CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION, Symposium on School Leadership, University of Omaha, accessed 11/10/2015 at: http://coe.unomaha.edu/moec/briefs/EDAD9550kokdevries.pdf

Musoleno, RR & White, GP (2010), Influences of High-Stakes Testing on Middle School Mission and Practice, Research in Middle Level Education (RMLE), 2010 Volume 34, No. 3. Accessed 11/11/2016 at: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ914055.pdf

NCTE (2014), How Standardized Tests Shape—and Limit—Student Learning, A Policy Research Brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English, accessed 11/10/2015 at: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CC/0242-nov2014/CC0242PolicyStandardized.pdf

Schul, JE (2011), Unintended Consequences: Fundamental Flaws That Plague the No Child Left Behind Act, Ohio Northern University, 2011, Accessed 11/10/2016 at: https://nau.edu/uploadedFiles/Academic/COE/About/Projects/Unintended%20Consequences.pdf

Monday, November 9, 2015

PF Dec 2015 - Standardized Tests are Beneficial - Pro Position

Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.

For part 1 of this analysis, click here.

Pro Position

Support for the Pro position of this resolution if bountiful and defensible in a properly framed debate. At the outset, the Pro debater needs to recognize there is significant negative press against standardized testing arising from a multitude of factors, many of which are unrelated to the question of whether or not standardized testing is beneficial to student education.  These negative factors poison the well and spread the perception that because some elements related to standardized testing are undesirable, then standardized testing in general must be undesirable.  This, of course, is a logical fallacy; a kind of fallacy of composition in which one draws conclusions about a whole based upon an examination of smaller portions. Standardized testing is a tool and like any tool can be designed for specific purposes. We shall examine those purposes and their effect on education and we will scratch the surface of an abundance of studies which measure the effect of testing on students. Much of the research extends back several decades and is still cited in research journals today.

A Basic Definition

To clarify the position, I will provide a definition for standardized tests which describes their nature and their purpose.

JCCHD (undated):
A Standardized test is a test that is given in a consistent or “standard” manner. Standardized tests are designed to have consistent questions, administration procedures, and scoring procedures. When a standardized test is administrated, is it done so according to certain rules and specifications so that testing conditions are the same for all test takers. Standardized tests come in many forms, such as standardized interviews, questionnaires, or directly administered intelligence tests. The main benefit of standardized tests is they are typically more reliable and valid than non-standardized measures. They often provide some type of “standard score” which can help interpret how far a child’s score ranges from the average.

Based upon this definition we can surmise that the test may be administered by a school in accordance with some over-arching direction or purpose and may be required by local administration or government or at the state level. A key principle is the test must be administered and assessed in a standardized and consistent way aligned to the purpose it is designed to serve.

Key Advantages

Standardized tests offer advantages to school system administrators which are not possible with in-class testing and assessments designed and graded by teachers.  The key advantages are objectivity, comparability, and accountability (Churchill 2015).  Depending on the type of test one teacher's evaluation of a student's test may be different than another teacher's evaluation of the same student's test results. This variability can result from a lack of objectivity in the design or assessment of the test and lead to different impressions of a student's level of achievement. Standardized tests are designed to greatly reduce subjective grading. Often, standardized tests are assessed by computers rather than humans. Not only does this reduce costs by eliminating the need to pay graders, it enforces objective standards. The second major advantage is seen when a local school board needs to determine the overall level of achievement of, say sixth-graders in several different schools within their jurisdiction, Standardized tests ensure that all of the sixth-grade students will be evaluated on a common, objective standard. This allows a fair evaluation of sixth-grade achievement and helps determine which schools or classes may be in need of improvement.  Objectivity and comparability are both necessary to realize the advantages linked to accountability.  School system administrators use the tests as a feedback mechanism for the schools and classes to alter curriculum or resources in such a way they can benefit student achievement.  Accountability requires the individual schools and instructors demonstrate forward progress in achieving the goals of the school administration.

From Feedback to Blowback

I do want to spend a little time discussing the downside of standardized tests because I believe a thorough evaluation and acknowledgement of problems increases the Pro ethos.  Accountability is pushed by governments intent on maximizing their educational dollars. Obviously, an administration concerned with high costs will tend to view standardized tests as a mechanism for achieving goals for the least cost.  First, the cost of testing is relatively cheap and secondly standardized tests can potentially isolate problems in individual schools, classrooms, or teachers putting increased pressure on those systems and individuals. Moreover, politicians can use accountability to enhance their own political statuses.

Merrow (2001):
But the fundamental problem is that many schools and school districts use standardized test results more for accountability than understanding or diagnosis. I'm not blaming educators for this situation, because they're only following orders. H. D. Hoover of the University of Iowa defends testing but agrees we've gone overboard. He places the blame squarely on politicians. "They want quick fixes, and they like tests because they're cheap. They mandate external tests because to the public it looks like they're doing something about education when all they're doing is actually a very inexpensive 'quick fix.'"

When accountability increases pressure on school districts in a heavy-handed way, students are often re-categorized for failure to demonstrate achievement above a particular "cut-line" which alarms and often angers parents.  Teachers are pressured to increase the performance of students and some teachers are viewed as professionally incompetent.  All of this pressure results in negative attitudes about standardized testing and leads to abuses which have resulted in overly narrowed curriculum which focus entirely on the tests, and in extreme cases, cheating.  All of these negative impressions ripple through communities and result in the perception standardized tests are the problem. The link between the home and the administration is the classroom and the teachers themselves play a significant role in the success or failure of the testing programs.

Brown & Hattie (2012):
The belief systems of teachers are a significant factor in whether standardized tests can be educationally useful. Clearly, pre-existing beliefs that standardized tests are irrelevant can and will influence how teachers respond to the possibility of using tests educationally. But there are other options for understanding the purpose and nature of assessment; assessment can evaluate schools, it can evaluate or certify students, and it can be for improvement (Brown, 2008). For example, in the development of the asTTle standardized tests system, it was found that teachers who endorsed the conception of assessment related to “assessment is powerful for improving teaching” had higher interpretation scores on a test about the meaning of the asTTle test score reports (r = .34). In contrast, teachers who endorsed more strongly the conception of assessment as a means of evaluating or holding schools accountable had the lowest interpretation scores (r = -.21) (Hattie et al. 2006).Thus, successful use of standardized tests requires believing that they can contribute to improved teaching and student learning for the individuals in a teacher’s class. This belief leads to more accurate interpretation to the educationally useful information communicated in standardized test reports.[290]

We can see tests as simple measuring systems which serve as an important tool in guiding the educational development of students. Ultimately it is how those tools are used and people's attitudes about how the tools are used which guides perception of whether or not the tests are beneficial. No doubt it guides the perception of the PF debate judge as well.

The Benefit to Students

Testing is good. Whether designed by teachers in the classroom or nationally recognized experts in the field of childhood education. Testing allows parents and students to self-assess. This is necessary because students (and often parents as well) are overly positive in their evaluation of themselves.

Benjamin & Pashler (2015):
One of the reasons that tests are unappealing to some students and to their overweening parents is that tests fairly reveal what we do and do not know. This feedback can violate the positive feelings we hold about ourselves and our abilities, which are often inappropriately optimistic, especially in the classroom (Hacker, Bol, Horgan, & Rakow, 2000). This violation causes students to rate instructors more poorly (Isley & Singh, 2005) and to generate complicated but unsupported theories about supposed learning styles that their classrooms are failing to support (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009). What is of particular concern is the way that such inappropriately tuned self-assessments influence study behavior.[18]

Students who believe they do not need to study, will not study and parents who believe their children are meeting standards, will not push them to improve.  Testing reveals educational shortcomings which enable parents and students to react to the benefit of the student's education.

Wahlberg 2011:
Students benefit directly when they take tests that offer information on how well they have mastered the material intended for learning. School reading and mathematics skills, for example, can be precisely specified, and as students learn the skills, they benefit from ongoing information tailored to their specific, individual progress. Computers streamline this process by providing immediate feedback about correct and incorrect responses far more quickly and with much greater patience than teachers and tutors can provide.

The objective and rapid feedback given by standardized tests allows families to adjust their educational strategies sooner rather than later to their benefit.

Another important benefit arises when standardized exit examines are given sometime prior to graduation.  Students, face enormous peer-pressure throughout their time in school. At the higher achievement levels there is a great deal of pressure to achieve status; to be in the top 10% or to achieve the highest GPA because of the belief it enhances a students ability to get into the best colleges or land the best jobs.  But conversely, many students are under intense peer pressure to resist the high-stakes competition for school ranking and fall into a pattern of under-achievement as a strategy to maximize their personal welfare.

Bishop 1997:
Steinberg, Brown and Dornbush conclude similarly that "The adolescent peer culture in America demeans academic success and scorns students who try to do well in school (1996, p. 19)." Why are the studious called suck ups, dorks and nerds or accused of "acting white"? In part, it is because, since exams are graded on a curve, their study effort is making it more difficult for others to get top grades. When exams are graded on a curve or college admissions are based on rank in class, joint welfare is maximized if no one puts in extra effort. In the repeated game that results, side payments–friendship and respect–and punishments–ridicule, harassment and ostracism–enforce the cooperative "don't study" solution. If, by contrast, students are evaluated relative to an outside standard, they no longer have a personal interest in getting teachers off track or persuading each other to refrain from studying. Peer pressure demeaning studiousness should diminish.[6]

Standard tests and in particular, standardized exit examins change the game and provide an opportunity to evaluate students on their own merits rather than comparatively.

Bishop 1997:
Curriculum-based external exit exam systems (CBEEES) improve the signaling of academic achievement. As a result, colleges and employers are likely to give greater weight to academic achievement when they make admission and hiring decisions, so the rewards for learning should grow and become more visible. CBEEES also shift attention towards measures of absolute achievement and away from measures of relative achievement such as rank in class and teacher grades. By doing so, CBEEES ameliorate the problem of peer pressure against studying.[5]

The Benefit to Teachers

A properly applied accountability system based upon standardized testing can be beneficial to teachers which of course, ultimately benefits student education in general.  We have already shown how teacher attitudes and perceptions play a critical role in the success of these programs. Feedback is essential for teacher success.

Hamilton & Stecher 2015:
After all, standardized tests can do many things: tell policymakers and families how well students are doing overall; play a role in state and district accountability systems; contribute to teacher evaluations; and inform decision-making about student course placement. Some tests are used in other ways that include teachers adapting day-to-day instruction to meet individual student needs based on each student's test results.

In fact, it appears that teachers generally see positive benefits in standardized tests and in the associated accountability systems.  After all, teachers for the most part, are dedicated professionals who seek to benefit their students and ultimately their communities.

Hamilton, et al (2005):
Finally, teachers believe the SBA systems in their states have affected their schools, students, and themselves in a variety of positive ways, in particular by increasing the school’s focus on student learning. These positive effects were reported by teachers in schools that met their AYP targets as well as by teachers in schools that did not...[continued below]

Thus we see accountability can be positive even when systems fail to meet their targets. But the Pro side of this debate realizes the application of accountability is extremely important and as we have already discussed, teacher attitudes play a huge role in the success of these programs.

Hamilton, et al, continues:
[coninued from above]...At the same time, teachers express a number of concerns, particularly about staff morale, and their responses indicate that pressure to raise scores has led to some narrowing of curriculum. Majorities of teachers report that factors not under their control are hindering their efforts to improve student achievement. To the extent that teachers feel they lack the capacity to meet the accountability goals, it is likely that the pressure to meet AYP targets will lead to reduced morale and a greater temptation to focus narrowly on raising test scores to the exclusion of other important goals. [37-38]

We can conclude that teachers do understand and perceive benefits arising from increased focus upon student success and the capability to adjust their curriculum in ways which benefit the students in their classes.  Still, Pro cannot ignore that proper application of the accountability systems which spawn standardized tests are vital and we shall explore that in more detail below.

The Benefits to Administrators

Properly applied, a system of standardized tests can be effective tool for administrators to evaluate and adjust educational priorities to the benefit of their jurisdictions.

Wahlberg 2011:
If standardized tests are misused, of course, the program and student learning may be defective. When standardized tests are used appropriately, a great deal can be learned about how well schools function. That information allows educators and policymakers to make better-informed conclusions about how much students are learning, which in turn allows them to make better-informed decisions about improving programs.

It is a given that policymakers and administrators may narrow their focus to such a point it opens the door to abuses such as "teaching to the test" or cheating as I have previously mentioned.  "Teaching to the test" is seen as a negative in that it may restrict the autonomy of schools and teachers, but in answer to that argument, Pro may point out that often the goals of accountability are precisely in agreement with what the community expectations are for their school systems.

Figlio & Loeb 2011:
Monitoring provides incentives for those being monitored to appear as effective as possible against the metric being assessed. It is certainly possible, therefore, that educators could teach very narrowly to the specific material covered on the tests, and little or no generalizable learning outside of that covered on the test would take place (Koretz and Barron, 1998). This restriction on the domains of learning may not be a concern if the tests that come with high stakes for schools cover a wide range of material considered important by society; in fact, this “teaching to the test” may be desirable.[397]

Therefore is can be claimed "teaching to the test" can provide the capability to hit the key metrics required to achieve success in alignment with community expectations.

Approaches to Accountability

Thus far the Pro position has looked at the perceived benefits of standardized testing for the eduction of students in K-12 education systems. The biggest impact to education arises, not from the tests themselves (though we shall see, testing in and of itself is good) but rather from how the results are applied. So, when the sources discuss accountability it refers to how the results are used to properly determine the status of education within various school systems and how that knowledge can be used to drive progress in a way which benefits education and not just provide political gratification. Particular criticism of accountability metrics centers around the fact that students are often evaluated relative to standards determined by administrators. For example, the administration may decide all eighth-graders in the nation or the state should have this or that knowledge.  These kinds of standards are a kind of one-size-fits-all approach which ignores individual capabilities and are falling into disfavor.

Ladd & Lauen 2009:
The theory of action behind educational accountability is that by setting standards and measuring performance relative to standards, teachers will work harder and students will learn more. Increasingly, however, observers have argued for shifting the metric for school accountability away from the achievement status of a school’s students, as is the case under NCLB [No Child Left Behind], in favor of a metric based on students’ growth in achievement during the year (Hanushek and Raymond 2005; Ladd and Walsh 2002; Toch and Harris 2008).[2]

Two principle approaches to accountability have emerged and each is directed to different goals within the education system and as might be expected each has an up-side and a down-side.

Filio & Loeb 2011:
The two types of approaches—status and growth—measure different outcomes and tend to generate different objectives and incentives for schools. Status-based systems that focus on the percent of students who achieve at proficient levels seek to encourage schools to raise performance at least to that level (Krieg, 2008; Neal and Schanzenbach, 2010). This approach is appealing to many policy makers because it sets the same target for all groups of students and because it encourages schools to focus attention on the set of low performing students who in the past may have received little attention. Status based systems also have the advantage of being transparent. The goal of the growth model approach is to encourage schools to improve the performance of their students independently of the absolute level of that achievement. Such an approach is appealing to many people because of its perceived fairness. It explicitly takes into account the fact that where students end up is heavily dependent on where they start and the fact that the starting points tend to be highly correlated with family background characteristics. At the same time, the use of the growth model approach may raise political concerns, both because the public may find the approach less transparent than the status approach and because some see it as a way of letting schools with low average performance off the hook. [392]

The message for Pro, is the system in general works and it works well when the accountability is correctly used in accordance with generally accepted community standards of success.  And that is the point, really.  The standards and expectations are ultimately determined by the voters and residents of the communities which seek to maximize the welfare of their children.

Testing is Good

In researching this topic, I came across an interesting paper by Benjamin and Pashler discussing the psychology of testing in general and its beneficial effects on student learning. It is particularly interesting because one can examine the topic from a group of experts who have no real stake in standardized testing other than to study the effects of testing on human learning and extend the research to standardized testing as a genre of generalized testing.

Benjamin and Pashler discuss research which proves taking tests has a beneficial impact on students' long-term memory retention and supports a case favoring frequent testing (Benjamin & Pashler 2015:15). Additionally, testing improves cognition and the ability of learners to construct new conclusions by perceiving the relationships between facts (Benjamin & Pashler 2015:16). The paper also looks at the question of student motivation and addresses the concerns about narrow curriculum as having potentially beneficial outcomes.

Benjamin & Pashler 2015:
One of the most direct ways in which tests promote learning is by motivating students to study. The benefits of this effect can be controversial when it is believed that the test measures unimportant skills or when teachers focus on the test to the exclusion of other materials, two common criticisms of the current standardized tests for the Common Core. But the curriculum for the Common Core, as well as its attendant tests, is fluid and likely to experience considerable development. Students who take regular quizzes in the classroom are more likely to attend unrequired meetings (Fitch, Drucker, & Norton, 1951) and exhibit better class attendance (Wilder, Flood, & Stromsnes, 2001), both of which are known to increase student achievement. Moreover, tests with a clear agenda can focus teachers’ and students’ activities onto materials that are broadly considered to be valuable.[19]

The Facts and Figures

So now we can conclude this position with a look at the research.  The studies cited were conducted using a variety of methods mostly comprised of accumulating achievement measures under various scenarios and drawing statistical conclusions against various metrics.  While I do believe citing statistics and facts has a positive influence on judges I also believe that going too deeply into studies will tend to diminish the impacts of conclusions as judges become overwhelmed in numbers.  Here is a little of what I could find.

Carnoy & Loeb 2002:
Our results indicate a positive and significant relationship between the strength of states' accountability systems and math achievement gains at the 8th-grade level across racial/ethnic groups. Surprisingly, students' achievement at higher levels of math skills is also related significantly to stronger state accountability, suggesting that focusing on higher standards and how well schools do on tests may also improve higher level skills. This may result because schools with high-achieving students also feel the pressure to improve their students' performance. Indeed, there is some evidence that better perfonning schools have greater capacity to respond to external accountability pressures (Carnoy et al., in press). [320]

Figlio and Loeb examined the results of a plethora of studies and their paper serves as useful clearinghouse for debaters interested in going deeper in the research of acclaimed sources. This particular snippet is interesting because it mentions one particular factor that may actually work against instructors.  The influence of home interference in teaching methods can skew results as parents pass along their own (perhaps undesirable) learning methods.

Figlio & Loeb 2011:
Though no one approach or study is flawless and many inconsistencies remain, taken as a whole, the body of research on implemented programs suggests that school accountability improves average student performance in affected schools, at least in general. Experimental evaluations of test score reporting, such as Andrabi et al.’s (2009) new results from Pakistan, also support the notion that accountability can boost student outcomes While, in general, the findings of the available studies indicate achievement growth in schools subject to accountability pressure, the estimated positive achievement effects of accountability systems emerge far more clearly and frequently for mathematics than for reading. This pattern is particularly clear when the outcome measure is based on a national test, such as NAEP, but it also emerges in some of the district or state level studies such as Figlio and Rouse (2006). In part this pattern reflects the fact that some authors report results only for math, although that is presumably because of the smaller effects for reading. The larger effects for math are intuitively plausible and are consistent with findings from other policy interventions such as voucher programs (Zimmer and Bettinger, 2008) and tax and expenditure limitations (Downes and Figlio, 1998). Compared to reading skills, math skills are more likely to be learned in the classroom, the curriculum is well-defined and sequenced, and there is less opportunity for parents to substitute for what goes on the classroom (Cronin et al., 2005, p. 58).[410]

Finally, it is shown that regardless of the type of accountability employed, beneficial results are measured.

Ladd & Lauen 2009:
Using a ten-year panel data set and value-added models of student achievement with both student and school fixed effects, we find that neither type of school based accountability system generates distributionally neutral effects on student achievement in the schools subject to accountability pressure. Moreover, the distributional effects differ depending on whether the system holds schools accountable for the growth or the status of their students’ learning. This first conclusion should not be surprising. It simply reflects the fact that educators do indeed respond to incentives, and that the incentives to pay attention to students at different points of the achievement distribution differ between the two approaches. The policy challenge is to design a system consistent with the goals of the policy.[33]

Thus, we conclude standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States. Is it perfect? No.  But the evidence discussed above shows it is a fluid system that is evolving and learning from its mistakes.  I guess we could conclude standardized testing is good for standardized testing.

Alderman 2015:
Today’s eagerness to jettison our commitment to leave “no child behind” is a shame, not just because better tests are on the horizon, but also because it worked. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students have never been higher. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. And researchers repeatedly link No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on traditionally underperforming groups to real improvements in schools around the country.

Thus we urge a Pro ballot.

Click here for Con


Bishop, JH (1997). Do curriculum-based external exit exam systems enhance student achievement? (CAHRS Working Paper #97-28). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.

Brown, G. T. L., & Hattie, J. A. (2012). The benefits of regular standardized assessment in childhood education: Guiding improved instruction and learning. In S. Suggate & E. Reese (Eds.) Contemporary debates in child development and education (pp. 287-292). Accessed 11/7/2015 at: http://www.academia.edu/1964802/The_benefits_of_regular_standardized_assessment_in_childhood_education_Guiding_improved_instruction_and_learning

Carnoy, M and Loeb, S (2002), Does External Accountability Affect Student Outcomes? A Cross-State Analysis, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Winter 2002, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 305-331. accessed 11/6/2015 at: https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/EEPAaccountability.pdf

Churchill, A (2015), Bless the tests: Three reasons for standardized testing, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, (March 18, 2015) accessed 11/7/2015 at:

Hamilton, L and Stecher, B (2015), Make tests smarter, USNews & World Report, Nov. 2, 2015. Accessed 11/7/2015 at: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/2015/11/02/standardized-tests-can-be-smarter

JCCHD (undated), Johnson Center for Child and Development

Sunday, November 1, 2015

PF Dec 2015 - Standardized Tests are Beneficial - Introduction

Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.


This debate is familiar.  A related debate was seen in PF in 2005, "Resolved: Student aptitude should be assessed through standardized testing." but a very similar resolution appeared in March 2009, "Resolved: That, on balance, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has improved academic achievement in the United States." (Note: the No Child Left Behind Act was also debated in 2003 but that predates my years as coach). I remember the 2009 debates quite well and no doubt if I looked, I would find evidence and discussion from that time.  I guess that is one benefit of the NSDA recycling of similar topics.  This debate should provide good ground for a lively debate although my gut feeling is that popular opinion may lean Con.  Standardized testing as a means of determining educational achievement has been around for a long time in the U.S. and there is a wealth of good literature available online discussing the Pro and Con.  In particular after more than a dozen years of No Child Left Behind, we have accrued no dearth of evidence to attest to its effectiveness or lack thereof, in several segments of American society and education outcomes in general.   

I begin with an analysis of the resolution.


On balance
It is certainly not the first time we have seen these words in debate and the meaning should be obvious if you think in terms of a balance-beam type of scale used to weigh things. On balance basically means, as the Collins English Dictionary puts it, "after weighing up all the factors". On balance is another way of saying after comparing one side to the other or specifically in debate terminology, after looking at the pros and cons. The comparison does not always have to be analysis of pros versus cons.  Sometimes one can compare factors to standards (norms, known quantities, expectations, etc.) Often, this approach can be preferable to weighing up two unknowns on each side of the balance beam.  Think about it, if one weighs one unknown against another unknown, it is, one presumes, easy to determine which weighs more but impossible to tell how much weight either side carries. More on this later.

standardized testing
Perhaps this can be treated as two words without significantly changing the meaning but there is no point in doing so because the terminology has become well-known in the U.S. and most closely associated with elementary and high school educational settings. Gawthrop gives the following definition:

Gawthrop 14:
The legal definition for standardized testing is, “A test administered and scored in a consistent or standard manner... administered under standardized or controlled conditions that specify where, when, how and for how long children respond to the questions. In standardized tests, the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent. A well designed standardized test provides an assessment of an individual’s mastery of a domain of knowledge or skill.” [page 5, ellipses in original]

The final sentence in Gawthrop's quotation, "provides an assessment of an individual’s mastery of a domain of knowledge or skill." gives us a glimpse of a potential standard to use for weighing.

I like the Merriam-Webster definition of this word; "conducive to personal or social well-being." Nevertheless, this may fail to adequately provide a clear bright-line. The bright-line is a standard demarcating the division between two outcomes.  For example, the line between pass and fail or the line between beneficial or not beneficial. More on this later.

education, K-12 education
As described by Merriam-Webster, education as a noun is the process of teaching someone, or the knowledge, skill and understanding one receives in school. Since K-12 is a term denoting Kindergarten through 12th grade, it references the education attained in primary and secondary school in the U.S.; grade school through high school. Interesting that the definition of education allows two topical approaches to the resolution. One looks at the outcome for the student; the knowledge skill and understanding imparted upon individuals. The other topical meaning looks to education as a process; the collection of methods, resources, and systems utilized to impart knowledge.

United States
If you are debating in one of the 50 states, the United States is the place where are will be debating. The term in this context serves to limit the debate solely to the jurisdiction of the United States. Therefore, no need to research standardized test benefits in other countries like Germany or Australia, if either of those nations do testing. Of course, as I have mentioned many times, this limit does NOT mean we cannot look to other nations as models or examples.


As students many of you may be unaware of the controversy surrounding standardized tests.  Many students only look at the tests as a heavy, requirement which sucks-up time for other fun activities like working on debate cases. For several decades, the federal government has been concerned about the apparent decline of the U.S. in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) when compared to other nations around the world.

Beard 13:
For both students and up-and-coming professionals, tests and studies continue to confirm that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge when it comes to math, technology and science. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which surveyed more than 150,000 people age 16 to 65 in 24 different countries, America's results for literacy were disappointing, but mathematics and problem solving proved to be especially embarrassing for a nation that has formerly reigned as a leader of innovation and technology. The U.S. ranked 21 out of 23 countries in math and 17 out of 19 countries in problem solving in the October study.

But the U.S. decline in STEM may only be a visible indicator of a general decline in education, noted by education system advocates and which became a growing concern of the U.S. government. Before discussing this much further, it is useful to keep in mind that the business of education falls to the individual states under the U.S. Constitution 10th amendment.

LWV (undated):
In 1791, the 10th Amendment stated, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  Public education was not mentioned as one of those federal powers, and so historically has been delegated to the local and state governments.

Therefore the many details of providing public education to citizens is managed almost exclusively at the state level, or so one presumes.  However, the U.S. federal government, also has a constitutional requirement to provide for the common good. Therefore, the federal government has supported states by providing funding and other resources and lands to the states for the promotion of education. The U.S. also has a regulatory role in that equal rights protections are enforced at the federal level in order to ensure that minorities and the disadvantaged have equal access to public education. Moreover, the competitive advantages the U.S. enjoys in many international ventures and businesses is seen as a national interest which strengthens U.S. soft-power and influence in world affairs. Loss of competitiveness attributed to a general decline in education attainment does not go unnoticed by the U.S. federal government. Of particular concern to the federal government is quality of education across various socio-economic levels. As a general rule, lower income areas have poorer educational outcomes than higher income areas, and lower income areas are often predominately black, or Native American or Hispanic, or other ethnic groups which in the past have required federal action to protect their natural and civil rights.

Of course, along with the perceived decline of U.S. education attainment as measured in things such as reading proficiency tests, math scores, and so on, came the expected political posturing, finger-pointing, blame-placing and associated "solution" proposals. Direct federal government attempts to level the playing field for minorities was consolidated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), passed in 1965, which provided a variety of federal grants and resources aimed specifically at lower-income districts. ESEA was amended and reauthorized in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, "nickle-bee"). NCLB made provisions that districts needed to demonstrate forward progress in education attainment in exchange for continued disbursement of grant money and so launched a renewed and vigorous discussion on the quality of American education, accountability, and standardized testing as a measure of education attainment.

As you begin to research this, you almost certainly will realize that NCLB has been controversial leading to charges of districts cheating or lying about results to receive federal grant money, to wide-spread incentives to "teach to the test" instead of providing the kind of well-rounded or general education intended. Under Obama, the federal government has made it possible for states to assume a larger role in setting their own standards under certain conditions.

EW 2011:
Traditionally high-performing schools made headlines as they failed to meet their set rates of improvement, and states saw increasingly high rates of failure to meet the rising benchmarks. By 2010, 38 percent of schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress, up from 29 percent in 2006. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as part of his campaign to get Congress to rewrite the law, issued dire warnings that 82 percent of schools would be labeled "failing" that year. The numbers didn't turn out quite that high, but several states did see failure rates over 50 percent (McNeil, Aug. 3, 2011). The law allowed states to set their own annual benchmarks, provided they reached 100 percent proficiency by 2012-13, and some simply refused to raise their benchmarks any further or requested waivers from the rules. In the summer of 2011, Mr. Duncan promised to create a waiver option for all states, though it would have strings attached requiring those states to adopt some of the administration's education priorities (McNeil, Aug. 9, 2011). In Congress, meanwhile, members from both parties saw a need to rewrite the law, but agreeing on the shape of a new version of that law was slow in coming (Klein, Jan. 16, 2011; Sept. 14, 2011).

Resolution Analysis

While the controversy and debate surrounding federal intervention into education is far-reaching and broad, its general relevance to this debate is somewhat limited. It is important to know how we got to this point and to understand that politics and ideology may play a major role in the topic. This debate is not necessarily related to the federal role in education but it is specifically focused on the role standardized tests play in the educational system. The resolution does not tell us if the tests we will debate are mandated federally or by the state or even by a local school board. To be sure, standardized tests have a purpose and the resolution gives us few clues as to what that purpose may be despite the resolutional requirement we must determine their benefit to education. If we believe we determine a tool beneficial to education if it makes kids smarter, it may be difficult to understand how any test makes a child smarter since it usually serves as a measure of relative educational achievement, that is relative to the applied standard. If we determine a tool beneficial in that it exposes shortfalls or weaknesses, maybe we can conclude standardized tests are beneficial.  But, being able to the see the flaws in something is a long way from being able to fix it, even if it is a necessary first step.

I think most judges, especially adult judges, who are educators and/or parents will be interested in a case which frames the determination of beneficial in terms of education attainment. That is to say, does standardized testing help make our kids smarter or not? Oddly, smarter is one of those things most of us know and understand but how to we really know if a kid is smarter? Despite the proclivity to favor a framework that looks at direct educational outcomes on students it is still possible to lead the judge to an alternate framework which evaluates the ability of the educational system to carry out its mission to provide education.

Balancing Act

One potential framework pitfall I see lies in establishing the "on balance" requirement of the resolution.  Standards are key to the debate, so let me explain.  If a team gets up and reads, for example, a case describing all of the advantages inherent in standardized testing beneficial to education the balancing requirement infers the Con (or strategically, perhaps, Pro) must provide an examination of the advantages of not doing testing but instead using alternative means to benefit education. Thus the judge evaluates comparative advantages, a classical competitive debate framework. The broad assumption is the judge will be, as a manner of speaking, comparing apples to apples. In other words, the assumption is the both sides will use the same evaluative standard. But what happens if the Pro side discusses advantages relative to grade point averages while the Con side discusses advantages relative to reduced drop-out rates? The judge is now comparing apples and oranges. This tends to make the outcomes of rounds more subjective.

Beneficial Benefits

The foregoing discussion on potential problems inherent in balancing different standards, is closely related to the broad scope of the word "beneficial". I think one of the main criticisms of certain kinds of tests, is their irrelevance to certain cultures or cultural identities. There are many kinds of "education" which serve a vast array of purposes relevant to the personal identities of individuals. Some may value good test scores in math or science, while others may value the ability to think critically, or adapt to different environmental challenges as being much more beneficial to personal education. I do expect those kinds of comparisons to show up in rounds.  At some point the good judge will need to decide, whose standards are we trying to meet or exceed?  Typically, standardized tests are created by governments and are designed to measure educational progress against standards which the government decides are important. Thus, I would surmise those standards must be in accord with the judge's personal experience.

Let's see what the Pro and Con positions reveal.

Click here for Pro


Beard, K (2013), Behind America's Decline in Math, Science and Technology, U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 13, 2013. accessed 11/1/2105 at: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/11/13/behind-americas-decline-in-math-science-and-technology

EW (2011) Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2011, September 19). Issues A-Z: No Child Left Behind. Education Week. accessed 10/1/2015 at: http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/no-child-left-behind/

Gawthrop, J. (2014), Measuring Student Achievement: A Study of Standardized Testing and its Effect on Student Learning, accessed 11/1/2015 at:

LWV, League of Women Voters,The History Of Federal Government In Public Education: Where Have We Been And How Did We Get Here?, accessed 10/1/2015 at: http://lwv.org/content/history-federal-government-public-education-where-have-we-been-and-how-did-we-get-here