Busting the myth about standardised testing

by Tarek Mostafa
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Standardised testing has received a bad rap in recent years. Parents and educators argue that too much testing can make students anxious without improving their learning. In particular, standardised tests that could determine a student’s future – entry into a certain education programme or into university, for example – might trigger anxiety and, if conducted too frequently, might lead to poorer performance, absenteeism and lower self-confidence. But are standardised tests really used all that frequently? And do they exacerbate anxiety and undermine performance?

Evidence from PISA dispels these myths.

On average across OECD countries, about one in four 15-year-old students attends a school where mandatory standardised tests are never used, and three in five attend schools where these tests are used only once or twice a year. In 11 countries, including Belgium, Costa Rica, Germany, Slovenia and Spain, more than one in two students are in schools that never assess students with mandatory standardised tests. In contrast, teacher-developed tests and judgemental ratings are used considerably more frequently. On average across OECD countries, nearly one in three students sits teacher-developed tests every month, and about two in five sit these tests more than once a month. In Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and Chinese Taipei, more than 50% of students sit teacher-developed tests more than once a month.

Moreover, contrary to commonly held beliefs, the frequency of tests, as reported by school principals, is not related to the level of test anxiety reported by students. In fact, on average across OECD countries, students who attend schools where they have to sit standardised or teacher-developed tests at least once a month reported similar levels of test anxiety as students who attend schools where assessments are conducted less frequently. One possible explanation is that test anxiety is triggered by aspects of the tests other than their frequency. For instance, the nature or difficulty of the task, the surrounding atmosphere, time constraints, characteristics of the examiner, the mode in which the test is conducted, and the physical setting of the test might influence a student’s psychological attitudes towards the test. All of these factors, in turn, interact with the student’s own ability, self-confidence, motivation, study and test-taking skills, and preparation.

The relationship between performance in science and the frequency with which schools or countries assess students is also weak. On average across OECD countries, students who are assessed with mandatory standardised tests at least once a year score slightly lower in science (by six points) than those who are assessed more frequently, while students who are assessed with teacher-developed tests at least once a month score somewhat higher (by five points) than those who are assessed less frequently. But after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, these associations are not significant.

The findings also show that students’ school experience have a stronger relationship with their likelihood of feeling anxious than the frequency with which they are assessed. PISA shows that students reported less anxiety when their teachers provide more support or adapt the lessons to their needs. In contrast, students reported greater anxiety when they feel that their teachers treat them unfairly, such as by grading them harder than other students, or when they have the impression that their teachers think they are less smart than they are.

In a nutshell, when it comes to standardised tests the evidence from PISA is clear: The negative influence these tests have on schoolwork-related anxiety is a myth, and the bad rap they have received in recent years is unwarranted. Standardised and teacher-developed tests play an important role in monitoring student performance and academic progress. They do not exacerbate anxiety, especially when students perceive that their teachers treat them fairly, and help them build their self-confidence.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
PISA in Focus No. 79 – Is too much testing bad for student performance and well-being?
PISA 2015 Results (Volume II) – Policies and Practices for Successful Schools
PISA 2015 Results (Volume III) – Students’ Well-Being

Follow the conversation on Twitter: #OECDPISA

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