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Garn Christensen | Testing is just one tool to evaluate students

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Testing in the year 2013 is part of everyday life.

As children, we are tested academically and physically in K-12 schools, as teens for a driver’s license, and then throughout our adult years for various career and vocational related licenses and certifications.

The wide use of standardized tests resulted from the need for an efficient method to sort the 10 million American men age 18 to 45 who were drafted to serve in the armed forces during World War I. These 10 million men had great diversity in their skills and abilities and were given physical exams, as well as a standardized test to determine their literacy and mathematical skills. Based on the resulting score, the men were then assigned to do various jobs ranging from driving tanks, flying airplanes, being trained in medical care, to working in weapons research labs.

Since then, testing has continued be used as a sorting method for those seeking entry into careers with a high need for literacy, mathematical skills, scientific reasoning and analytical abilities. Colleges and universities determine prerequisite skills for general admission and demonstration of more advanced skill levels for continued training until some level of competency is met. The student is then certified or licensed to practice the trade for which they trained and tested.

Testing in public schools has many forms. Most common are teacher- and school-developed tests otherwise known as formative assessment. An example would be an end-of-week spelling, math or science test that is designed to give the teacher immediate feedback on how a student is doing.

Schools also give students standards-based tests that are similar in format to a driver’s license test. These tests may be given in any subject and measure a set of criteria the student must demonstrate mastery on to pass the test. An example might be a school district prerequisite test for algebra or college entry exam. The questions would have been already agreed to by the educators, as well as the minimum score required to be admitted into the algebra course or college program.

State and national tests are often used to compare one student against other students who took that same test using what is generally called a bell curve method of calculation. The resulting report most often provides results for each test taker on whether they did better or worse than others who took the same test. All students are then ranked by percentage with one student having the highest score and another having the lowest. All other students are grouped in between these two scores.

Schools also use growth tests. These tests measure where a student is at the beginning of the educational experience (pre-test) and then measure again at the end of the instruction (post-test). A score will indicate the amount of growth from the pre-test to the post-test.

When I visit with educators from other countries they talk about the tests their students must take, yet also describe America’s education system as one of second chances. In many of these countries, a student’s future career path is determined by tests taken in the teen years and second chances are not possible.

It is my opinion that testing is valuable, but not the only indicator of a student’s current or future success. Many adults are very good at their profession, yet test below where they actually perform. Others do great on tests, yet struggle with the day to day expectations and relationships found in the work place. I greatly appreciate that the United States is known to be a system of second chances and that our futures are not determined by the test score we earned as teens.

Garn Christensen is the Superintendent of the Eastmont School District. He can be reached at