Standardized Tests: What’s Wrong and What’s Right About Them?

Standardized tests have been part of the American education system for over a century. Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT are college entrance exams designed to assess a student’s ability to succeed. When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law in 2002, standardized testing in public schools was mandated in all 50 states. Annual reading, math and science testing is now required for grades 3 through 8 and once again in high school. The NCLB was created to improve student performance and uses performance scores to evaluate teachers and schools. Low scores not only have repercussions for the students, but can also lead to the dismissal of teachers and school closings.

NCLB was passed to address the declining performance of American students in math and science. Experts blamed rising poverty, poor teacher performance and tenure policies that make it difficult to fire teachers who under perform. Student scores on standardized tests is the method used to gauge student, teacher and school performance.

Today’s standardized tests typically consist of multiple-choice questions and are graded through an automated process. Standardized testing is multi-billion-dollar industry, due in large part to the NCLB mandated testing requirements. The first standardized tests were very different.

The first known standardized test was given in Imperial China in the 7th century. Government job applicants were tested about their knowledge of Confucian philosophy. The Industrial Revolution sparked the use of standardized testing in the Western world. Farm and factory workers rushed back into classrooms and testing gave educators the tools develop relevant curriculums. Reformers Samuel Gridley Howe and Horace Mann used the centralized Prussian system as a model and introduced the first standardized test to the Boston school district. Developed to provide a single standard, compare schools and gather information about the quality of teachers, the test was soon adopted across the country. Concerns about excessive testing were voiced in 1906, when the New York State Department of Education warned that persistently drilling students was a “very great and more serious evil…” The earliest known multiple-choice test was the Kansas Silent Reading Test, developed by Kansas school director, Frederick J. Kelly. His goal was to reduce time and effort in scoring and test administration. International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) hired inventor and teacher Reynold B. Johnson to create a test scoring machine prototype in 1934.

Standardized testing has always had its supporters and detractors, but the debate is more pronounced now than ever. Since the NCLB passed, low standardized test scores result in high-stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools. The question of whether the use of standardized tests improves education in America is very much a divisive issue.

What Standardized Test Supporters Say

Standardized test supporters believe that testing has a positive effect on student performance and achievement. Richard P. Phelps, a testing scholar, analyzed over 100 years of standardized test research and found that 93 percent of the studies found a positive effect on student performance. A 2010 McKinsey & Company report found that 20 school systems that use national and international performance assessments achieved “significant, sustained, and widespread gains.”

Supporters point to the fact that China, with its long tradition of standardized tests, leads the world in reading, math and science skills. They also say that teachers, students and parents in the United States overwhelmingly support standardized testing, that the tests are fair and administered at a low cost and that the quality of school curriculums has improved since the NCLB was initiated. Supporters believe that standardized tests better prepare students for college.

What Standardized Test Critics Say

Standardized test detractors believe that testing is an inhibitor, not a performance booster. They point to the fact that in 2002, before NCLB was initiated, the United States was 18th in the Programme for International Student Assessment, but dropped to 31st in 2009, seven years after it was enacted. Detractors do not believe standardized tests accurately measure student performance. A 2001 Brookings Institution study found 50-80 percent of year-to-year test score improvements were not only temporary, but were caused by fluctuations that “had nothing to do with long-term changes in learning.”

Critics also believe that standardized tests are geared toward those in higher economic groups and discriminate against low-income, non-native English speakers and special needs students. Detractors believe that standardized testing forces educators to “teach to the test,” rather than teach meaningful classes that and promote creativity, enthusiasm, empathy, leadership, courage and compassion, qualities that cannot be measured with tests.

The Future of Standardized Tests

There is no question that standardized testing is here to stay. Changes are on the horizon, however. The College Board recently announced a completely redesigned SAT, the college entrance exam it administers, that will take effect in the spring of 2016. The current test has long been criticized as an unfair and unreliable measure of college readiness.

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative is likely to add to the number of standardized tests students in middle and high school take. Common Core is an educational initiative that endeavors to establish educational consistency throughout the United States and better prepare all students to successfully enter two-year or four-year colleges. The initiative sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association, currently has 44 state members. Common Core State Standards Initiate assessments will begin in the 2014 to 2015 school year.