How fair are standardized tests?

“Hey Mom, what’s a binder?  My teacher says I need one.”

I never saw that one coming…

Our boys have had so many life experiences.  They’ve cycled with buffalo and camped in snow.  They’ve danced at Carnival and made a pilgrimage to a holy site.  They’ve flown over the Nazca Lines and seen conehead skulls and walked on floating islands and climbed Mayan pyramids.  They’ve eaten asado and lomo saltado and tried mate.

watching buffalo

But they didn’t know what a binder was. And they had no idea that in junior high they would move from teacher to teacher rather than staying in one homeroom most of the day.  It’s been fun watching a whole new world emerge before them.

The boys have now attended school two days – sorta.  Yesterday it took us all morning to get them enrolled, so they only went to a few classes.  Today they were really looking forward to their robotics class – but it turned out that they needed to take the ISAT standardized test all day.  Yes – on their second day of school.

This has gotten me thinking about those standardized tests and I’m more convinced than ever that they’re unfair.  I remember giving one of those tests to my first graders in Ethiopia many, many years ago and I actually marked down which of the questions I figured my students may not be able to understand due to lack of one particular life experience – and at the end of the test I had marked over 50% of the questions.

Although I don’t remember most of the questions any more, I know one of them related to a fireplace.  You know – like the fireplace inset into a wall and the chimney goes up behind the wall to take the smoke outside?  The kind of fireplaces we have in many houses here in America?  The kind that you would never see in most places in Africa?

I remember thinking that my students – regardless of how bright they were – were at a tremendous disadvantage simply because of where they grew up.  They grew up with fires for cooking, but had never seen a standard American fireplace.  Did that make them less smart?  Should they be penalized on the test for that?


And now I’m looking at that very same idea with my own boys.  If they had taken the ISAT three days ago and if there had been a question on it about a binder, they would have been clueless.  Such a simple thing – and one that took all of about ten seconds to explain – but it would have totally thrown them a few days ago.

How often do we do that to kids? We assume they know something – like knowing that junior high kids change classrooms every period?  Or knowing what a binder is? Or a fireplace?

And yet we require kids to take standardized tests and base important decisions on them.

riding horses

I remember visiting my brother in the refugee camp in Malawi he worked at.  “So,” I asked him, “these people walk for a day or ten days or a hundred days to get here.  They walk through the gate of the refugee camp, and then what?  What happens to them?”

“We assign them a plot of land and they go build a house,” he replied.

“But what if they don’t know how to build a house?” I asked, knowing I would have no clue how to build a house if I had to.

Everyone here knows how to build a house,” he told me.  “It’s unthinkable that they wouldn’t.”

the whole family

Am I stupid for not knowing how to build a house?  Or is it just that my life experiences haven’t included that particular set of skills?  Are my boys clueless about life because they don’t know how your typical American kid goes about their daily routine at school? Or is it just that their life experiences have included other things besides that?  Is it really fair that all kids should be given the same questions regardless of their life experiences?

OK, OK, you know that the teacher in me hates this testing.  I really, really hate this testing and think it’s ridiculous.  My boys don’t mind it – it’s actually quite fun for them since it’s easy and they score high – so I won’t argue about them having to take it.  But I feel badly for the other kids – those kids who, for one reason or another, struggle with it.  I just don’t think it’s fair.

And I hope my sons don’t end up penalized for having had the experiences they’ve had rather than the ones their classmates have.

with penguins

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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15 Responses to How fair are standardized tests?

  1. Zak April 19, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    The more I read/learn about standardized tests the more I dislike them.

  2. Kristin Bair O'Keeffe April 19, 2011 at 7:22 pm #

    Love this post! Makes me want to leap onto my well-worn anti-standardized-testing soapbox & let the powers that force them upon our kids have it! But since you don’t know me & I have a bit of a sore throat, I’ll resist. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  3. Barbara Wolff April 19, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    This comment of yours reminds me of a situation that I had with my daughter Andrea when we moved to Germany. She was in high school and an entire math test was word problems having to do with a “schornstein”, translated in english as chimney. So Andrea answered all mathematical questions about angles and heights with her idea of a chimney- on top of a roof. But schornstein to Germans is a smoke stack on the ground which are quite common there.
    Needless to say she flunked the test as all her calculations took into account an enormous space between ground and the base of the chimney.
    I went to speak with her teacher who never understood that this was not a lack of knowledge on math calculation, but a foreigners misunderstanding of an object.

  4. nancy April 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    And to think that, for many children, those simple misunderstandings lead to them making mistakes on standardized tests that then determine options they have throughout life… It’s fairly easy to understand the second language issues, but harder to grasp that not all kids know the same things – even if they seem like common knowledge!

  5. Ellen April 19, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    I completely agree with you on the ridiculousness of standardized tests. My first grade ELL students have to take reading comprehension tests that include topics like ice fishing, something that is completely outside of their life experiences in a place where the temperature seldom drops below 45 degrees. And people wonder why they have low scores…

  6. Amy April 20, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    My kids would have similar responses. The kids have an ipod and a kindle (ereader), but no other electronics. The kids have no idea about pop culture. The only books written post ’23 that the kids have read have been by JK Rowling, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and Mary Norton. They went to school for three weeks this year and thought that it was so slack that they got to watch a documentary each Friday afternoon. Music is nursery rhymes for the little ones or classical music.
    How would these kids go on standardised testing? It is ‘assumed’ that kids these days are regular consumers of Hollywood and electronics.


  7. Jessica April 20, 2011 at 4:28 am #

    Amen. 🙂

  8. Justin April 20, 2011 at 4:38 am #

    How can there be a standardized anything? Are all kids to receive the exact same, standard education.

    There has to be a better way of judging if our kids are learning. Not a fair system, never has been.

    As a kid, I remember filling in those circles just so I could be done. Not the I was dumb or lazy, I just wanted to go outside.

  9. Jenn @ HarmonicMama April 20, 2011 at 5:35 am #

    There’s a whole issue too with the student’s test answers not being theirs and the corruption in the testing system.

    That being said as unschoolers/homeschoolers there’s not much pressure to do extremely well on the state tests but I like the idea of using the standardized test as a benchmark. Also in our state (Pa) you can opt out of the standardized tests by previewing the exam and stating a moral objection. That won’t help with things later in life like the SATs but it would help a test phobic kid in K-12.

  10. AprilS April 20, 2011 at 6:47 am #

    Thank you so much for this perspective on standardized testing. I for one have always thought it’s a bad idea as not all kids do well with the same testing format and now for the reasons you mention above.
    Sounds like your kids have lived an amazing life thus far. It’s weird to have to worry about testing when you know you are teaching them more through travel and experience than they’d learn sitting at a desk.

  11. Peter Ratcliffe April 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    I’m with you Nancy. As a kid, I was a natural at every standardized test thrown at me, aced them all with top scores and offered university admissions based only on SATs.

    Probably because I had a great memory more than any real gifts. Specific things and especially grades were expected from me based on numbers on a score, and I was pushed in directions that didn’t suit me.

    I may have tested smart, but I was immature and it took many years of life and many mistakes to actually become intelligent about life. We all follow different paths.

    Ignore the numbers on a page and look into the heart and mind, and especially experience of the person. Your sons have many times the real life experiences that the average human has in an entire life, the rest will follow easily if it’s imprtant for the goals they follow.

    There’s simply no test for life experience, but schools have become factories of uniformity and numbers are the common measure. That’s unfortunate, and perhaps why so many choose to home school.

  12. cagey April 25, 2011 at 5:45 am #

    The last line of this post really spoke to me. As parents, I think we ask ourselves that frequently, regardless of our situations.


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