The purpose of standardized tests in schools is to give educators an objective, unbiased perspective of the effectiveness of their instruction. Although standardized testing was designed to identify the natural aptitudes of individual students, over the years some educators have found additional factors may skew the results.
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Standardized tests have been a part of U.S. education since the mid-1800s. But their popularity really skyrocketed in 2002 when the No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual testing in all 50 states.
Since then, there’s been much debate about whether or not standardized testing can truly measure education quality—and how much weight should be given to standardized test scores. Like most arguments, there are strong opinions and points to be made on both sides.
Some say that standardized testing is the best way to accurately and objectively evaluate students’ academic progress. Others, however, are strongly opposed—believing that achievement tests provide skewed, inaccurate results, and preclude many students from being able to exhibit their individual knowledge.
But before we delve into each of these arguments, let’s define what standardized tests are, what exactly they are designed to do, and what they are used for.
What Are Standardized Tests?
According to The Glossary of Education Reform, “A standardized test is any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from a common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students.”
What Are Standardized Tests Intended to Do?
Standardized test scores are used by districts and states to identify student progress, measure how students are performing in different schools, and compare how different groups of students perform relative to others. States also use these test scores to identify the lowest-performing schools and provide those schools with needed support. An important point to note is that standardized test scores also help decide the distribution of federal funds across the USA.
But are standardized tests truly fair to students and teachers? In the bigger picture, does this type of testing work?
Reasons to Support Standardized Testing
- Standardized testing is a practical and accurate way of evaluating what a student does or doesn’t know across important areas like math, reading, and writing.
- It can provide helpful benchmarks for teachers and parents. This can help them evaluate how a student is doing compared to others in their class, their city, and their geographic region.
- Standardized testing can identify learning gaps in students. This helps teachers focus on students who need more attention, in hopes of getting all students to meet basic proficiency levels and achieve basic skills.
- It can also guide curriculum choices and give structure for what needs to be taught. This helps teachers align their classroom materials and provides a measure of accountability for what goes into the classroom.
- Standardized tests eliminate the risk of subjective grading. They ensure thoughtful rationale behind each test question and help to eliminate discrimination and marking bias.
Arguments Against Standardized Testing
- At face value, standardized tests appear to be fair because every student takes the same test and evaluations are largely objective. However, a one-size-fits-all testing approach is arguably biased because it can’t account for certain factors that are unique to each student, such as their mental health, learning disabilities, anxiety, difficult home lives, language barriers, or socioeconomic status. Or perhaps a student just isn’t a good test-taker.
- Standardized tests fail to account for students who learn and demonstrate academic proficiency in different ways. For example, a student may be an excellent writer but struggles to answer a multiple-choice question about punctuation and grammar.
- High-stakes testing like standardized test scores can place undue stress on students and may affect student performance. Unreasonable pressure from schools or parents may even lead to anxiety, cheating, or the use of performance drugs.
- The pressure to raise standardized test scores often forces teachers to “teach to the test” rather than provide a broad curriculum. Subjects like art and music, which are not currently tested in most states, get less emphasis, and students may miss being exposed to a rich academic environment.
- Standardized tests don’t provide any feedback on how to perform better. The results are not even returned to teachers and students until months later, and they don’t include any guidance on how to improve these test scores.
- Achievement test scores can lead to false assumptions of teacher effectiveness. These days, if a school’s standardized achievement test scores are high, people think the school’s staff is effective. If test scores are low, they view the teachers as ineffective. This can place unfair blame on good teachers who have low test scores while ignoring teaching deficiencies if scores are high.
- Some opponents argue that standardized tests only determine which students are good at taking tests—their scores are not predictors of future success. Even if a high school student does well on a standardized test, it doesn’t mean they know what they need to know before they get to college, or that they’ll do well there.
Despite the criticism, standardized testing does serve an important function within education. Schools need to have a benchmarking system in place in order to measure the performance and progress of students, and the government needs to have a way to identify schools that need additional support. However, as pointed out, the system is not without its flaws and there are certainly areas that need to be addressed. Hopefully, with enough discussion of these criticisms, standardized testing can continue to serve the function it was created for, but a solution can be found that provides a more balanced result.
If you have found this article helpful, you may also be interested in reading our short series on STEAM education, beginning with STEAM Education: Preparing All Students for the Future. Or, for more valuable classroom insights and innovative EdTech solutions, head directly to the ViewSonic Education page.