Testing 103: Testing Environment Standardization

So a standardized test, because it is ‘standardized’, ensures fairness, equity and justice, right? Since every student taking that test is tested on the exact same content under the exact same circumstances, it stands to reason that that gives everyone taking the test an equal opportunity to do well, right? And that the results will be an unbiased way to compare one student to another, apples to apples, right?

But that is not always as easy as it sounds

Yes, the testing environment and testing conditions are standardized, so each student taking the test will take it under the same circumstances as every other student taking that same test.  The trouble is, students are human, and like snowflakes, each one is different. (And states are different, and school districts are different, and individual schools within a district are different, because they are all filled with those pesky humans!)

A standardized test often has a time limit. That is part of standardizing the testing environment. If one student had three hours, and another student had just 30 minutes, then the testing conditions are not the same, and the student who had more time, may have an advantage over the student who had only 30 minutes. Using the results of such an assessment for comparison reasons would be like comparing apples to oranges, as the saying goes.

As another example, at each testing site, the testing window always occurs after the same number of days in school. This ensures equity across different school calendars. In California, the Education Code (Ed Code) dictates that one school year will contain exactly 180 student days. But the start dates, holidays, and vacations are up to each individual district to decide. If the whole state had the exact same testing window start date, then kids at schools that began the school year before Labor Day, for example, would have attended more school days before the test begins than kids at schools that started after Labor Day. Another example is that a school on a Traditional Calendar would have had more student days in school before the testing start date than a Year-Round Calendar school that had already had a number of off-track days before the start of the testing window. In order for the test environment to be standardized, i.e. the same for every participant, the start date is set to begin after a specified number of school days, rather than a date on the calendar.

So standardization makes it fair and equal for everybody.

Oh, except for that one student who was out for a week and a half back in February because he had to have an emergency appendectomy. (You can’t plan that sort of thing for vacation time!)

Oh, and that other student who moved here from out of the district. They were on a different school calendar, but now she is on our calendar. She hasn’t been in school as many days as the students who have been at our site since the first day of school, but she takes the test on our schedule now anyway.

Oh, and the student who is chronically tardy through no fault of his own. His parents just can’t seem to get him to school on time, so he misses anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of instruction per day. If that happens for the first 120 days of school, averaging 20 minutes late, that’s 120 days X 20 minutes, which is 2400 minutes, or 40 hours, or almost 7 days, based on a 6 hour school day. That’s a lot of time.

Sometimes, special accommodations are made in the testing environment; in some circumstances they are even required. For example, accommodations may be made for a certain student population, perhaps according to Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Certain students, who have been identified with specific learning disabilities, may take the test in a small group setting, or be given more time than the general population. Or, second language learners may have the test read to them in their primary language, or have access to a bilingual dictionary during the test. Those accommodations would be with the intention of leveling the playing field, in hopes that apples could still be compared to apples, despite the learning disability or language barrier.

There is a lot to take into consideration when one tries to standardize the testing conditions across an entire state, for example.

In our district, there is a list of things to do before and during the testing window to ensure standardization. It looks something like this each year:

Before the testing, each site will:

  • Notify families of the testing window and encourage 100% attendance. Discourage absences, late starts, and early outs for students for things such as doctor or dentist appointments that could be reschedule outside of the testing window.
  • Cancel all special pull-out programs scheduled during the testing window. This includes library, vocal music, instrumental music, speech, RSP, ESL, counseling, field trips, etc. Sometimes physical education and even recess can be cancelled or rescheduled so it does not interfere with the testing schedule.
  • Sometimes a school-wide snack is scheduled during each day of the testing window to level the ‘hunger’ playing field. (Some students have breakfast, some students don’t.)

Before testing, each teacher will:

  • Remove any bulletin boards that may contain information that students could use to help them on the test; i.e. math facts, formulas, sound-letter cards, word walls, vocabulary, posters or charts containing subject-matter content, student work containing subject-matter content, etc. etc. etc.

During testing, each teacher will:

  • Hang the red TESTING: DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door.
  • Collect all cell phones and unauthorized electronic devices.
  • Ensure that no student leaves the classroom during the testing session.
  • Use desk dividers, or separate students from one another to ensure independent work

Also to ensure standardization during the testing, each teacher is required to read the directions for the test aloud to the students directly from the test administration booklet, exactly as printed. It’s even written as a script. This ensures that each teacher giving a particular test says the exact same thing to the students in exactly the same way as all of the other teachers giving that test. If one teacher worded a direction slightly differently, or accidentally skipped something, or added something that was not written in the directions, it could somehow give that group of test takers an unfair advantage (or disadvantage!).

Again, the intention is for all of the students taking the standardized test to be able to be on equal footing with all of the other students taking the same, enabling the results to be compared on an apples to apples basis.

Oh, but what about that time that our testing days fell in the middle of a heat wave? Students in classrooms with out air conditioning where the temperatures can reach 103 degrees are not taking the test under the same conditions as students in classrooms where the A/C keeps the temperature comfortable, or as students in schools not experiencing a heat wave during their testing days. Does classroom temperature affect student outcomes?

Oh, and what about the student who was running a fever last night but not this morning, and was sent to school today anyway, because it was a testing day, and the school had stressed how important it was for the students not to be absent. Will she score as well as she would have on a day that she didn’t run a fever the night before?  How does physical health affect student outcomes?

Oh, and what about the student who found out just this morning that his cat had been run over by a car in the middle of the night. Would he score as well as he would have if the test had been the day before the death of his pet?  How does emotional health affect student outcomes?

These are just a few of the ways that the very best intentions toward test standardization in pursuit of fairness, equity, and justice can be thwarted simply because humans are involved. Too bad we’re not educating widgits!



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