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The Use of Standardized Tests in Assessing Authentic Learning--A Contradiction Indeed

by Martha Casas - October 12, 2003

This commentary considers how using standardized tests to assess authentic learning and authentic instruction at the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels is a blatant contradiction. The author states that although some teacher certification agencies urge teacher education programs to provide instruction about authentic teaching and learning, these same agencies require their pre-service teachers to pass a standardized test to receive a teaching certificate�a notable contradiction. The article addresses this similar paradox existing at the secondary and elementary school levels, also. School principals must evaluate their teachers according to how well they implement the best practices in their classrooms including cooperative learning and the use of authentic assessments. Yet, the children�s understanding of what they have learned throughout a school year is evaluated by a standardized test. In short, the author illustrates the irony surrounding the use of standardized testing at the different levels of education in this country.

Currently, the terms standardized testing and authentic learning have become “buzz-words” in the field of education.  We see that many state agencies of education across the country administer some kind of teacher certification examination to ensure that pre-service educators are prepared to enter the classroom.  In Texas, for example, teacher education programs are required to incorporate the latest and most effective learning theories into their teaching regimen including the need for varying instructional strategies, cooperative learning, integrating curriculum, fostering higher-order thinking skills, and the use of authentic learning and authentic assessment.  Yet in order to receive a teaching certificate, pre-service educators are required to take and pass a standardized test—a notable contradiction.


Moreover, the use of standardized testing flies in the face of cognitive psychology, the foundation of many of the current teaching and learning theories being advocated in today’s teacher preparation programs.   A case in point is the use of authentic assessment.  Teacher educators spend countless hours teaching students the importance of using authentic assessments and how to design assessment alternatives. Via coursework, pre-service educators learn about portfolios, rubrics, holistic scoring, and the need for using anecdotal records particularly for younger children.  Nevertheless, upon completion of the teacher education program, students soon realize that their understanding of the content will be assessed only by a paper and pencil test.  It is not unusual, therefore, for pre-service teachers to raise this contradiction to their instructors, but what can their university professors say?  The incongruity is obvious. The student’s understanding of the constructivist approach to teaching and learning is assessed by standardized testing, an assessment tool rooted in behaviorism.

At the secondary and elementary school levels we find that standardized testing is also used to assess children’s understanding of academic content despite the fact that much of the instruction they have received falls under the constructivist umbrella.  The Texas Education Agency for example ensures that teachers are delivering learner-centered instruction in their classrooms by evaluating them each year according to the standards established in the Professional Development Appraisal System (PDAS), an instrument that goes beyond measuring a teacher’s attention to paper work and work attendance. In short, Texas’ teachers are assessed on how well they are able to promote active and successful student participation in the learning process.  School principals must determine if their teachers are varying instructional strategies for addressing different learning styles, incorporating cooperative learning into lesson planning, integrating curriculum, fostering higher-order thinking skills and using authentic modes of assessment.  However, their students’ knowledge and understanding of the statewide curriculum are evaluated at the end of the year by a standardized test. Texas is not the only state that implements this practice. Other states such as California and Massachusetts have jumped on the bandwagon as well.


Although this paradox may be confusing to teachers and parents, it is even more so to our children.  Sitting for two or three hours selecting correct answers to a series of reading and mathematics questions with some restroom breaks in between is a contradiction to how children learn each day.  During testing the children cannot ask their teachers or their classmates for help in taking the test.  Yet, in their daily routines teachers offer students their help to understand challenging work, and students often work collectively in problem-solving activities. However, for three or four hours of each test-taking day children are exposed to a classroom setting that is unfamiliar to them which can be unsettling to some and could negatively affect their performance on the test. Assessment needs to be a natural part of the learning process.  Having children’s daily routines interrupted for taking a test that is measuring concepts that the students might not be learning that week defeats the purpose of authentic assessment. 

Also the stress surrounding standardized testing makes this medium of assessment particularly challenging to children.  High-stakes testing has become a source of high-anxiety to some children.   In some states students are denied a high school diploma if they do not pass a standardized test, and soon the idea of having elementary school children pass a standardized test in order to proceed to the next grade level may become an acceptable practice.  It is imperative, therefore, that we understand that children, including the very young, are not immune to the events that transpire around them.  Despite teachers’ efforts to minimize student anxiety over the test, children are still aware that their lives are impacted by their performance on a test—a test that is incongruous to how they learn in the classroom.

Accountability is not a dirty word to educators working in universities, high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.  We understand that as educators we must be held accountable for what our students learn. University professors need to provide school districts with competent and well-prepared teachers and pre-collegiate educators need to prepare children to become productive citizens.  Despite the age differences of our students, there is a common bond that we share, and that is standardized testing.

Although testing has been around for decades, it is not our only option. We need to seek out assessment alternatives in earnest. The ideal teaching model involves the use of authentic learning coupled with the use of authentic assessments. Assessment portfolios, holistic scoring and setting rubrics, interviews, and action research models are methods that should be used by teachers to assess student learning. By doing so we will have a system of teaching and learning that is truly constructivist--one that has linked instruction to the proper method of assessment and evaluation.  Working together at all levels of education we can turn the tide on high-stakes testing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2003
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11211, Date Accessed: 3/7/2022 2:56:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Martha Casas
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    MARTHA CASAS is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her primary research interests are teacher education and curriculum and instruction. Her recent article, �Making Pedagogical Theory Come Alive!� is scheduled for publication in volume 39 n. 3 of the Teacher Educator (Winter Issue 2004).
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