Problems With Standardized Testing

Updated on Nov 4, 2013

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 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.

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