Can Games Replace Standardized Testing?

Posted by in Blog on Jul 5, 2012

Can Games Replace Standardized Testing?


By Chris Jaech

Teachers know how important standardized test scores are. Not only are they important for the college admissions process, but since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2002, schools can eventually be closed if their students’ test scores fail to improve yearly. This puts pressure on teachers to narrow the curriculum to ensure that the material covered in class is relevant to the test. Since today’s standardized testing is so limited in what it assesses, the classroom environment becomes limited in the same ways. It doesn’t help that, because of the volume of tests that need to be graded, standardized tests must be multiple choice. It simply isn’t possible to individually grade the open-ended answers of every schoolchild in the nation. As a result, approaches to teaching that give students the tools to solve new problems themselves are discarded in favor of encouraging rote memorization. In a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, “…elementary school students were classified as ‘actively’ engaged in learning if they asked questions of themselves while they read and tried to connect what they were doing to past learning; and as ‘superficially’ engaged if they just copied down answers, guessed a lot, and skipped the hard parts. It turned out that high scores on both the CTBS and the MAT were more likely to be found among students who exhibited the superficial approach to learning.”  (See Alfie Kohn.)

So how can we make standardized testing better? Improving the tests themselves seems to be rife with complications. After all, one of the main problems with standardized testing is its one-size-fits-all nature. In addition to the fact that it’s hard to make a multiple choice test that encourages creativity and critical thinking, it’s near impossible to establish a hierarchy of rigid standards that measures these qualities. Without that rigid hierarchy, the standards are taken out of standardized testing.

There is, of course, room for improvement of the tests themselves.  Researchers are even working on game-based assessment devices. Since games are computer programs, they can theoretically accomplish more open-ended assessment which can still be processed automatically.  For example, at the Games, Learning and Society Conference in Wisconsin I saw a prototype “game-based assessment” presented by Jody Clarke-Midura and Jennifer Groff from the Virtual Performance Assessment Project at Harvard. In it, the player must determine what is causing the mutation of a local species of frog. Throughout the process they must show an understanding of the scientific process as well as demonstrate that they possess the knowledge necessary to find the correct answer. Of course, the prototype isn’t perfect, but it’s still significantly more flexible and requires more thought and creativity than conventional standardized tests, which only require memorization of facts and formulas.


Another approach takes standards into the 21st Century.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills advocates for standards that address the kinds of skills kids will need in the future.

However, a growing number of teachers and educational experts believe that using standardized testing is not the best way to assess the academic progress of young children, which simply wasn’t done before the NCLB act. While standardized tests are quite useful as a criteria for college admissions, the minds of 3-8th graders simply don’t work the same way that the minds of high school seniors work. Not only that, but without the looming threat of not being able to get into a good college, what real motivation do younger students really have to do well on standardized tests? If a school fails to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” as prescribed by the NCLB act, it’s the teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs.

From a developmental standpoint, it has been shown that younger children also tend to have more trouble with understanding the complex instructions needed to explain standardized tests. As children develop they gain the skills necessary to increase their scores on standardized tests, but this doesn’t happen in a predictable fashion. In an article in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss said “when longitudinal studies of testing were examined to see if the achievement test scores of young children could predict the achievement test scores received by those same children a few years later, the answer was that the tests did not predict well at all…The research quite convincingly shows that for young children, even over relatively short time periods, predictions from one administration of a test to the next are not usually accurate enough to engender any confidence that this year’s performance will tell us much about next year’s performance.”

Ms. Strauss also conducted a study to find out how effective teachers are in assessing their students, asking Arizona teachers to predict how well they would do on the state’s No Child Left Behind accountability test. She found that teachers were able to make this prediction accurately nearly 90% of the time. Teacher-based assessment not only eliminates the problem of teachers narrowing their curriculum in order to “teach to the test,” but it eliminates the need to waste millions of dollars on mandatory standardized tests.

Really we shouldn’t be giving standardized tests to anyone but high school students for the purpose of college admissions. Teacher evaluation for the purposes of the NCLB act is the better option for younger students, but I guess if we really have to have standardized tests at least they could be improved by making them games-based.