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Should There Be Standardized Testing in the Language Learning Classroom? (+ A Paralympics Analogy)

Abstract Standardized Testing is a trending topic in academic and political circles. To participate in this debate, I will define Standardized Testing, discuss potential positives and negatives to this approach, and address this type of testing in the milieu of American Sign Language classrooms.


Two men running in the Paralympics, one who is blind and the other who is leading him

The Definition of Standardized Testing

A Standardized Test is an examination in which students are given the same questions and scored in a similar manner to allow comparison of performance between students. Ideally, Standardized Testing provides a measurement stick by which to assess students’ progress. Like a basketball standard, the hoop has to remain at one height that is decided by all. (Imagine the hoop moving up and down according to which player is shooting at it.) These tests can hold stakeholders “accountable for educational outcomes (UNESCO, 2015). Governments can use these assessments to “evaluate a school's effectiveness” in providing ample opportunity for students to enter college (Popham, 1999), school systems to address the “range of needs” of their teachers (Perry, 2021, para. 5), and teachers to measure student’s progress and “identify students who need...specialized academic support” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2015, para. 4).

The Negative Side to Standardized Testing

Unfortunately, an over-reliance on Standardized Testing can have negative repercussions. First of all, multiple choice, essay, and true/false questions assess understanding solely through language; “a unilateral perspective of students’ knowledge” (Cunningham, 2018). A student may be brilliant at history but if they struggle to read (under pressure of the test, no less), then their score in no way accurately gauges their understanding of course content. Thus, while this form of testing is conducive to those who are adept at linguistic and mathematical ability (UNESCO, 2015, p. 3), it rarely supports any other intelligence (Armstrong, 2018). Along these same lines, Standardized Testing promotes homogenization by defining “academic success” as the ability to assimilate to “the dominant belief system” thus “systematically erasing epistemologies that differ from the dominant society” (Cunningham, 2018). In other words, it disparages diversity. Second, Standardized Testing assesses which students are exceptional at taking tests, not necessarily students’ understanding of what is being taught. For example, as a student, the moment the clock started and I began hearing the sounds of pencils on paper, my whole body would shake and my stomach would churn with anxiety. Regardless of the fact that I always studied diligently for tests and excelled in the classroom, I scored low on exams. Echoing the logical fallacy of circular reasoning, Reynolds, Livingston & Willson (2009) affirm that intelligence tests, created by academic circles, are “good predictors of academic success” (p. 334) while others argue that the tests do not predict life success (UNESCO, 2015, p. 10). Third, Standardized Testing focuses solely on easy-to-test concepts while largely excluding nuanced learning. As one website put it, this form of testing allows computers (or teachers) to score them “quickly, consistently, and inexpensively” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2015, para. 2). I will address this issue more in depth in the next section of this paper. Standardized Testing in the Language Learning Classroom American Sign Language (ASL) courses are largely unregulated with only two standardized curricula, Signing Naturally (Smith, Lentz, & Mikos, 1988) and A Basic Course in American Sign Language (Humphries, Padden, and O’Rourke, 1994) that are largely available to teachers. This means that there are no national or statewide mandated tests for ASL. (There are, however, state mandated tests for certifying ASL interpreters that vary from state to state.) Thus, the assessment of ASL largely depends on the school’s and teacher’s preferred testing format. Similar to other languages, most schools default to assessing ASL learning by focusing on easy-to-test linguistic concepts like grammar, conjugations, and vocabulary. However, these types of tests focus only on the superficial elements of a language. Yildirim (2008) warns against testing the “product” of language learning and not the “process.” Au (2007) points out that “teaching to the test” results in “nontested subjects … increasingly excluded from curricular content” (p. 260). In other words, how do you measure the nuances of language, the ability to function in unscripted conversations, the desire to communicate despite technical errors? A multiple choice exam or essay question does nothing to measure what truly counts in language learning for most students: the ability to communicate and connect with others in the language community. Paralympics Analogy

An analogy came to mind when I was considering the challenges and opportunities of Standardized Testing. Both the Olympics and the Paralympics have standards. Both support their athletes in pushing the boundaries of their sports. But unlike the Olympics’ rigid standards, the Paralympics work on the assumption that no two of their athletes are similar in ability; using “adaptations to achieve excellence” (World Para Swimming, n.d., para. 10). They divide events by classification, ”based on the impact the impairment has on swimming, rather than on the impairment itself” (Tokyo 2020, n.d., para. 4). Thus, both an athlete who has no limbs and a blind athlete can excel in swimming. Yes, there are rigid standards for each classification (summative testing) but they work with the assumption that no one impairment impacts all athletes the same and support a variety of events for inspiring competition (formative testing). My aversion to Standardized Testing is not in having a standard to measure progress, but rather in using standardized testing as the end-all judgement of a student’s knowledge to the exclusion of all other kinds of exams. Too often governments determine funding, rank schools, and hire / fire teachers depending on the scores of Standardized Testing. These do not take into account the unique challenges a state, school, teacher, or student is facing in the classroom. We must use more “authentic measures of assessment” (Armstrong, 2018, p.129) and find ways to balance the use of summative and formative assessments and treat both as vital indications of progress.


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