Standardized testing is a cornerstone of education today. Tests, administered by state education departments, are also at the center of controversy for many teachers and education reformers.
Standardized testing in the United States ramped up in 2002 due to the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act. The act aimed to hold all public schools to a high standard of education, measured by their students’ scores in statewide standardized tests.
But for over a decade, many educators and parents have rallied to fix what they see as problems with standardized testing. According to these objectors, standardized testing in its current forms is a bad idea for the following nine reasons.
The stakes are too high.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, test scores impact how much funding a school gets from the government, as well as how much autonomy a school has. Low-performing districts run the risk of state officials taking over operations and leaving them with little freedom to make independent decisions. Schools with low scores are required to make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” a specific measure of improvement year to year.
Critics of the No Child Left Behind Act say that there is immense pressure on school officials, teachers, students, and parents. That pressure to succeed creates a poor environment for learning—an environment of fear, rather than discovery.
Test scores can’t accurately measure learning.
In a 2013 speech to the American Educational Research Association, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that much of the criticism of standardized testing is warranted. “State assessments in mathematics and English often fail to capture the full spectrum of what students know and can do,” he said. “Students, parents, and educators know there is much more to a sound education than picking the right answer on a multiple-choice question.”
Standardized tests, by virtue of being multiple-choice, don't allow for students to express themselves. Many critics advocate for assessments that are open-ended.
Teachers are “teaching to the test.”
A study by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing found that teachers have started planning their curricula around state tests. This phenomenon is called “teaching to the test,” which can entail teaching only material that will be seen on tests or simply teaching test-taking skills. Opponents of high-stakes testing claim that with tests at the center of a year's curriculum, teachers lose some of the dynamism and creativity that makes school effective and enjoyable—that there is no value placed on concepts and hands-on projects that require a greater challenge than what can be tested in a multiple-choice format.
Standardized testing eats up instruction time.
Former Texas State Senator Ted Lyon found that high school students in Texas spend between 29 and 45 days a year taking tests. In Tennessee, students spend six weeks in testing a year, and California’s students spend four, according to PolicyMic.com. These numbers don’t include the weeks and months spent on test preparation classes and benchmark practice exams.
Schools are forced to make tough choices about course offerings to accommodate time spent preparing for standardized tests. Subjects such as art, music, and certain physical sciences aren’t tested, and therefore administrators often eliminate them from their schools. When New York City's scores dropped in 2010, many schools added two-and-a-half-hour test preparation sessions daily and additional test practice over holiday vacations, according to local papers. Decisions like this risk compromising the quality of public education, especially in high-need areas.
High stakes have led to cheating and score manipulation.
The largest cheating scandal in recent history was discovered in Atlanta during the 2012-2013 school year. Over the past decade, students in Atlanta had shown more highly improved test scores than in any other district. But evidence of a wide cheating conspiracy invalidated those scores and left administrators with little idea about how effective instruction had been over those ten years. In 2013, education research organization FairTest published a list of confirmed cases of state test score manipulation in at least 37 states and Washington, D.C.
Critics of standardized tests say that in addition to being tempted to cheat, school administrators may also be tempted to push low-performing students into special education, so their performance won't impact schools’ and districts’ cumulative scores. FairTest found that high-stakes testing may push administrators to arrange for low-scoring students to be absent on test day or leave the school completely.
Tests include cultural bias.
Studies published by The Harvard Education Review and RethinkingSchools.org have highlighted the problem of cultural bias in standardized tests. The main argument fueling the debate is that standardized tests ask students to draw on knowledge that they are unlikely to obtain in school.
W. James Popham, an expert on educational assessment, says that students draw from three sources when taking standardized tests: their natural intellectual ability, what they learn in school, and what they learn outside of school. For the test to be fair, Popham asserts, the first two should be the only factors that contribute to a student's score. “If children come from advantaged families and stimulus-rich environments, then they are more apt to succeed on items in standardized achievement test items than will other children whose environments don't mesh as well with what the tests measure,” he writes. Critics contend that outside knowledge consistently comes into play, making standardized tests unfair.
Poor timing keeps teachers from utilizing test results.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and other critics of standardized tests, say that their results don't help address student needs. “Results come back months later, usually after the end of the school year, when their instructional usefulness has expired,” Duncan said. Fourth grade students, for example, are tested on their knowledge at the end of fourth grade, and by the time schools receive the data, those students are already in fifth grade, preparing for fifth grade exams. This does not allow teachers to adjust their teaching style or make adjustments for individual students.
Test anxiety impedes learning.
Standardized tests place a heavy weight on students that can lead to anxiety. Test anxiety became such a serious issue that in 2002, California state tests included instructions for teachers on what to do if a student vomits on the test.
For students who have to pass a standardized test in order to advance to the next grade or to obtain a diploma, test anxiety can soar. Because anxiety can be so paralyzing, students may forget facts they had memorized or how to perform simple mathematical operations. In this way, the pressure placed on students to perform well ends up impeding the very thing standardized tests are designed to assess: how much students know.