Last updated on: 2/28/2024 | Author:

Standardized tests have been a part of American education since the mid-1800s. Their use skyrocketed after 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated annual testing in all 50 states. However, failures in the education system have been blamed on rising poverty levels, teacher quality, tenure policies, and, increasingly, on the pervasive use of standardized tests.

Standardized tests are defined as “any test that’s administered, scored, and interpreted in a standard, predetermined manner,” according to by W. James Popham, former President of the American Educational Research Association. The tests often have multiple-choice questions that can be quickly graded by automated test scoring machines. Some tests also incorporate open-ended questions that require human grading. Read more history…

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Standardized tests offer an objective measurement of education.

Teachers’ grading practices are naturally uneven and subjective. An A in one class may be a C in another. Teachers also have conscious or unconscious biases for a favorite student or against a rowdy student, for example. Standardized tests offer students a unified measure of their knowledge without these subjective differences. [56]

“At their core, standardized exams are designed to be objective measures. They assess students based on a similar set of questions, are given under nearly identical testing conditions, and are graded by a machine or blind reviewer. They are intended to provide an accurate, unfiltered measure of what a student knows,” says Aaron Churchill, Ohio Research Director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. [56]

Frequently states or local jurisdictions employ psychometricians to ensure tests are fair across populations of students. Mark Moulon, CEO at Pythias Consulting and psychometrician, offers an example: “What’s cool about psychometrics is that it will flag stuff that a human would never be able to notice. I remember a science test that had been developed in California and it asked about earthquakes. But the question was later used in a test that was administered in New England. When you try to analyze the New England kids with the California kids, you would get a differential item functioning flag because the California kids were all over the subject of earthquakes, and the kids in Vermont had no idea about earthquakes.” [57]

With problematic questions removed, or adapted for different populations of students, standardized tests offer the best objective measure of what students have learned. Taking that information, schools can determine areas for improvement. As Bryan Nixon, former Head of School, noted, “When we receive standardized test data at Whitby, we use it to evaluate the effectiveness of our education program. We view standardized testing data as not only another set of data points to assess student performance, but also as a means to help us reflect on our curriculum. When we look at Whitby’s assessment data, we can compare our students to their peers at other schools to determine what we’re doing well within our educational continuum and where we need to invest more time and resources.” [58]

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Pro 2

Standardized tests help students in marginalized groups.

“If I don’t have testing data to make sure my child’s on the right track, I’m not able to intervene and say there is a problem and my child needs more. And the community can’t say this school is doing well, this teacher needs help to improve, or this system needs new leadership…. It’s really important to have a statewide test because of the income disparity that exists in our society. Black and Brown excellence is real, but… it is unfair to say that just by luck of birth that a child born in [a richer section of town] is somehow entitled to a higher-quality education… Testing is a tool for us to hold the system accountable to make sure our kids have what they need,” explains Keri Rodrigues, Co-founder of the National Parents Union. [59]

Advocates for marginalized groups of students, whether by race, learning disability, or other difference, can use testing data to prove a problem exists and to help solve the problem via more funding, development of programs, or other solutions. Civil rights education lawsuits wherein a group is suing a local or state government for better education almost always use testing data. [61]

Sheryl Lazarus, Director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, states, “a real plus of these assessments is that… they have led to improvements in access to instruction for students with disabilities and English learners… Inclusion of students with disabilities and English learners in summative tests used for accountability allows us to measure how well the system is doing for these students, and then it is possible to fill in gaps in instructional opportunity.” [60]

A letter signed by 12 civil rights organizations including the NAACP and the American Association of University Women, explains, “Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes, even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused. These data are used to advocate for greater resource equity in schools and more fair treatment for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners… [W]e cannot fix what we cannot measure. And abolishing the tests or sabotaging the validity of their results only makes it harder to identify and fix the deep-seated problems in our schools.” [62]

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Pro 3

Standardized tests scores are good indicators of college and job success.

Standardized tests can promote and offer evidence of academic rigor, which is invaluable in college as well as in students’ careers. Matthew Pietrafetta, Founder of Academic Approach, argues that the “tests create gravitational pull toward higher achievement.” [65]

Elaine Riordan, senior communications professional at Actively Learn, states, “creating learning environments that lead to higher test scores is also likely to improve students’ long-term success in college and beyond… Recent research suggests that the competencies that the SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests are now evaluating are essential not just for students who will attend four-year colleges but also for those who participate in CTE [career and technical education] programs or choose to seek employment requiring associate degrees and certificates…. all of these students require the same level of academic mastery to be successful after high school graduation.” [66]

Standardized test scores have long been correlated with better college and life outcomes. As Dan Goldhaber, Director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, and Umut Özek, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, explain, “students who score one standard deviation higher on math tests at the end of high school have been shown to earn 12% more annually, or $3,600 for each year of work life in 2001.… Similarly… test scores are significantly correlated not only with educational attainment and labor market outcomes (employment, work experience, choice of occupation), but also with risky behavior (teenage pregnancy, smoking, participation in illegal activities).” [67]

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Pro 4

Standardized tests are useful metrics for teacher evaluations.

While grades and other measures are useful for teacher evaluations, standardized tests provide a consistent measure across classrooms and schools. Individual school administrators, school districts, and the state can compare teachers using test scores to show how each teacher has helped students master core concepts. [63]

Timothy Hilton, a high school social studies teacher in South Central Los Angeles, states, “No self-respecting teacher would use a single student grade on a single assignment as a final grade for the entirety of a course, so why would we rely on one source of information in the determination of a teacher’s overall quality? The more data that can be provided, the more accurate the teacher evaluation decisions will end up being. Teacher evaluations should incorporate as many pieces of data as possible. Administration observation, student surveys, student test scores, professional portfolios, and on and on. The more data that is used, the more accurate the picture it will paint.” [64]

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Con 1

Standardized tests only determine which students are good at taking tests.

Standardized test scores are easily influenced by outside factors: stress, hunger, tiredness, and prior teacher or parent comments about the difficulty of the test, among other factors. In short, the tests only show which students are best at preparing for and taking the tests, not what knowledge students might exhibit if their stomachs weren’t empty or they’d had a good night’s sleep. [68] [69]

Further, students are tested on grade-appropriate material, but they are not re-tested to determine if they have learned information they tested poorly on the year before. Instead, as Steve Martinez, Superintendent of Twin Rivers Unified in California, and Rick Miller, Executive Director of CORE Districts, note: each “state currently reports yearly change, by comparing the scores of this year’s students against the scores of last year’s students who were in the same grade. Even though educators, parents and policymakers might think change signals impact, it says much more about the change in who the students are because it is not measuring the growth of the same student from one year to the next.” And, because each state develops its own tests, standardized tests are not necessarily comparable across state lines, leaving nationwide statistics shaky at best. [69] [71] [72]

Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Education & Workforce Development at the time of the quote, stated, “Despite an increased focus on standardized testing, U.S. results in international comparisons show we have made no significant improvement over the past 20 years…. The U.S. most recently ranked 23rd, 39th and 25th in reading, math and science, respectively. The last time Americans celebrated being 23rd, 39th and 25th in anything was … well, never. Our focus on standardized testing hasn’t helped us improve our results!” [73]

Busteed asks, “What if our overreliance on standardized testing has actually inhibited our ability to help students succeed and achieve in a multitude of other dimensions? For example, how effective are schools at identifying and educating students with high entrepreneurial talent? Or at training students to apply creative thinking to solve messy and complex issues with no easy answers?” [73]

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Con 2

Standardized tests are racist, classist, and sexist.

The origin of American standardized tests are those created by psychologist Carl Brigham, PhD, for the Army during World War I, which was later adapted to become the SAT. The Army tests were created specifically to segregate soldiers by race, because at the time science inaccurately linked intelligence and race. [74]

Racial bias has not been stripped from standardized tests. “Too often, test designers rely on questions which assume background knowledge more often held by White, middle-class students. It’s not just that the designers have unconscious racial bias; the standardized testing industry depends on these kinds of biased questions in order to create a wide range of scores,” explains Young Whan Choi, Manager of Performance Assessments Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California. He offers an example from his own 10th grade class, “a student called me over with a question. With a puzzled look, she pointed to the prompt asking students to write about the qualities of someone who would deserve a ‘key to the city.’ Many of my students, nearly all of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch, were not familiar with the idea of a ‘key to the city.’” [76]

Wealthy kids, who would be more familiar with a “key to the city,” tend to have higher standardized test scores due to differences in brain development caused by factors such as “access to enriching educational resources, and… exposure to spoken language and vocabulary early in life.” Plus, as Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Chancellor of California Community Colleges, points out, “Many well-resourced students have far greater access to test preparation, tutoring and taking the test multiple times, opportunities not afforded the less affluent…. [T]hese admissions tests are a better measure of students’ family background and economic status than of their ability to succeed” [77] [78]

Journalist and teacher Carly Berwick explains, “All students do not do equally well on multiple choice tests, however. Girls tend to do less well than boys and [girls] perform better on questions with open-ended answers, according to a [Stanford University] study, …which found that test format alone accounts for 25 percent of the gender difference in performance in both reading and math. Researchers hypothesize that one explanation for the gender difference on high-stakes tests is risk aversion, meaning girls tend to guess less.” [68]

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Con 3

Standardized tests scores are not predictors of future success.

At best, Standardized tests can only evaluate rote knowledge of math, science, and English. The tests do not evaluate creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, artistic ability, or other knowledge areas that cannot be judged by scoring a sheet of bubbles filled in with a pencil.

Grade point averages (GPA) are a five times stronger indicator of college success than standardized tests, according to a study of 55,084 Chicago public school students. One of the authors, Elaine M. Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium, states, “GPAs measure a very wide variety of skills and behaviors that are needed for success in college, where students will encounter widely varying content and expectations. In contrast, standardized tests measure only a small set of the skills that students need to succeed in college, and students can prepare for these tests in narrow ways that may not translate into better preparation to succeed in college.” [83]

“Earning good grades requires consistent behaviors over time—showing up to class and participating, turning in assignments, taking quizzes, etc.—whereas students could in theory do well on a test even if they do not have the motivation and perseverance needed to achieve good grades. It seems likely that the kinds of habits high school grades capture are more relevant for success in college than a score from a single test,” explains Matthew M. Chingos, Vice President of Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute. [84]

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Con 4

Standardized tests are unfair metrics for teacher evaluations.

As W. James Popham, former President of the American Educational Research Association, notes, “standardized achievement tests should not be used to determine the effectiveness of a state, a district, a school, or a teacher. There’s almost certain to be a significant mismatch between what’s taught and what’s tested.” [81]

“An assistant superintendent… pointed out that in one of my four kindergarten classes, the student scores were noticeably lower, while in another, the students were outperforming the other three classes. He recommended that I have the teacher whose class had scored much lower work directly with the teacher who seemed to know how to get higher scores from her students. Seems reasonable, right? But here was the problem: The “underperforming” kindergarten teacher and the “high-performing” teacher were one and the same person,” explains Margaret Pastor, Principal of Stedwick Elementary School in Maryland. [82]

As a result, 27 states and D.C. have stopped using standardized tests in teacher evaluations. [79] [80] [88]

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Did You Know?
1. The earliest known standardized tests were administered to government job applicants in 7th Century Imperial China. [15]
2. The Kansas Silent Reading Test (1914-1915) is the earliest known published multiple-choice test, developed by Frederick J. Kelly, a Kansas school director. [20]
3. In 1934, International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) hired a teacher and inventor named Reynold B. Johnson (best known for creating the world’s first commercial computer disk drive) to create a production model of his prototype test scoring machine. [23] [24]
4. The current use of No. 2 pencils on standardized tests is a holdover from the 1930s through the 1960s, when scanning machines scored answer sheets by detecting the electrical conductivity of graphite pencil marks. [23] [24]
5. In 2020, states were allowed to cancel standardized testing due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. [54]


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