Our educational system claims to be about high expectations for all, regardless of ability. It says that, with the right teaching and some effort from the student, a low-achieving student can learn and improve. And yet our standardized testing system is designed to focus only on a student's ability. If it's time and effort that you standardize, then you guarantee that on any given date the amount each student learns will differ according to his or her ability. Consider that if you want to standardize an outcome—what it is you want them to learn—then time and effort must become variables in the system, so that ability ceases to be as important.

We have the capacity to do this easily right now by using technology to allow us to refocus where, what, and how we standardize. In fact, we don't even need the technology. In 1993, following my first year of teaching university freshman English, I realized that I wasn't doing my students much good. After grading my first paper, I could tell the good writers from the bad, and their first grades were a good indication of their final grades. Most students left my class with the same capacity to write as when they arrived.

During my second year, I tried something new. My syllabus indicated that the only way to pass was to write at least one extremely good paper. It might take a poor writer the entire semester or a good writer a week, but that was not within my control. My job was to support them based on their needs. I would determine grades by how often they wrote well, with a single success resulting in a C and additional successful work eventually earning an A.

I had good writers who earned their A's by the halfway point, while other good (but lazy) students wrote well once and took a C. I had poor writers who struggled all semester to earn the C, and a few who, through effort and extra time with me, actually achieved A's and B's. Regardless, no one walked out the door without having met a certain standard. On the last day of class, I could have easily ranked my students in terms of writing ability, but at that point, it no longer mattered.

I had found a way to standardize an outcome and de-standardize everything else. All my students were given a true opportunity to achieve at a very high level, and almost all of them did. My students differed dramatically in terms of the date on which they accomplished the task, the effort required, and certainly their ability to write, but by removing time and effort as constants, ability no longer mattered.

A standardized test given once each year only answers the ability question—what each student is able to do at that moment in time—but, as my example shows, the bridge between ability and success has a lot to do with time and effort as well.

This is where technology comes in. It can enable and scale what I discovered years ago. Establishing expectations for students, tracking student progress, and steering resources are no longer technologically challenging. A system that makes time and effort the variables and student success the constant is easily within our grasp.

Standardize the right things, and standardized testing will cease to matter.

— John Tanner is executive director of Test Sense, an organization with an innovative approach to turning data into information, appropriately and with a focus on the student.


New technologies are rapidly transforming the way we evaluate student learning. Emerging digital tools and improved assessment strategies are having an impressive impact in the classroom. This is not because testing is the most important aspect of education. Rather, assessment is meant to guide instruction. Testing should not consume valuable time that could be spent instead on what is infinitely more important: learning and teaching.

Modern advances in related tools allow teachers and test proctors to more efficiently (and sometimes more effectively) evaluate students. Ideally, this means teachers will waste less time creating tests, and students will waste less time taking them. However, this will not render standardized testing obsolete. If anything, standardized testing practices will improve just enough that our dependence on them will grow.

Maybe we will make standardized testing, regardless of its form, more valuable or conduct tests more swiftly due to these new ideas and technological advances. But the medium does not change the nature of standardized testing, which suggests that every student should learn the same things at the same time (often in the same way) as their peers.

While performance-based assessment may have more merit than a multiple-choice exam, for example, the standardization of requirements and expectations will not change because of new strategies or software. Many lawmakers in the United States embrace standardized testing as an accurate appraisal of the success of our education system. Teachers are held responsible for their students’ performance, regardless of classroom demographics, personal lives, or individual challenges. This will not change until we are bold enough to challenge the convention that students must be grouped by age to learn a regulated list of concepts.

What are the goals of an education system? If we mean to create a standardized experience for our youth so that every child grows up to have known, seen, and done similar things, we do them a great disservice. A unique perspective is invaluable to any situation. Just as biodiversity is important to the survival of a species because it endows the ability to resist disease or withstand environmental challenges, a heterogeneity of exposure and understanding is vital to our students’ intellectual future and success.

Standardized testing may shift and change in the future, but it can only become obsolete when the system begins to recognize the value of diverse education and experience. New assessment technology will only change our methods, not our madness.

— Elayne Evans is an instructional designer and an adjunct faculty member at Western Oregon University. She is currently teaching technology integration courses for preservice teachers and researching the flipped class model.

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