Standardized Testing: the Pros and Cons

Author: Mariah McCune
Education Thought Leader

In my classroom, the start of April marks the climax of stress for myself and my students.  As in years previous, my juniors are gearing up to take the state mandated SAT. The worries over qualifying scores for college admittance and scholarships weigh heavily on their minds.

This process comes with a dose of nihilism as my students contemplate how much this test should really matter to them.  My students are not alone in this as many people inside and outside of education question the value of standardized tests. 

The history of standardized testing

A good place to start in this conversation is to ask, where did standardized testing come from? American school children have undergone experiences with standardized testing since the mid-1800s.  Standardized tests originally began as intelligence tests to measure a student’s ability, but they have since evolved to provide a measure of a student’s achievement.  

These tests did not become widespread in public schools until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.  NCLB’s principal concern was that American school children were no longer academically competitive on the international stage. The act sought to implement a system that held students and teachers accountable for academic progress through standardized testing.  

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 tempered NCLB and the emphasis it placed on standardized testing.  While still an important metric under ESSA, standardized testing is but one data point amid other important measures like student engagement or postsecondary workforce readiness.

One thing is certain: despite their history, standardized tests have persisted in American schools for more than a century.  Furthermore, they are likely to continue in some capacity in the future.  Both proponents and opponents have weighed in on the value of standardized testing, and both sides raise compelling points.  This begs the question, what are the pros and cons of standardized testing? 

Benefits of standardized testing

Proponents of standardized testing identify these as benefits:

  1. These tests hold teachers accountable for student achievement and provide a measurable way to ensure teachers are teaching the appropriate standards.
  1. Standardized tests provide feedback about a student’s skill set for a given grade level and subject area.  This can provide useful data for a teacher in determining the incoming student’s strengths and areas for improvement.
  1. If the student takes the same test from year to year, teachers and families can observe how the student has grown academically over time.
  1. Because they are standardized, the results can be replicated across schools and across districts.  This levels the playing field as it provides marginalized students the same opportunities to demonstrate their learning as students with access to more resources.
  1. These tests provide accurate predictions about future success in college and careers. They also play a significant role in college and scholarship applications.

Criticisms against standardized tests

However, opponents are quick to counter with the following negative aspects of standardized testing:

  1. When tied to teacher evaluations, teachers begin “teaching to the test.” This negatively impacts the scope of their curriculum and limits their creativity.
  1. Students sometimes experience test anxiety with high stakes testing, which means that they are not performing at their best.
  1. The comparison data is not always relevant. Most states compare the performance of the students in a grade level with that of the students from the previous year in the same grade level, which doesn’t measure growth. 
  1. These tests are implicitly biased in favor of white, middle class students.  Thus, the questions do not represent a level playing field for students from all backgrounds.
  1. These tests do not necessarily measure what a student knows and is able to do but rather reward those who are good at taking tests under stressful conditions.  Standardized tests cannot measure a student’s ability to think critically, apply creativity, or solve difficult problems with divergent thinking.

Finding middle ground

Neither eliminating testing altogether nor embracing it as the sole measure of student and teacher success is productive.  However, both sides can agree that student growth and teacher aptitude are the most essential priorities of public education.

With that in mind, schools and school districts have found the middle way. Standardized testing certainly deserves attention.  However, it is not privileged as the be-all-end-all measure in determining student achievement and teacher efficacy.  This holistic approach ensures that the testing data is relevant to both students and teachers without eclipsing the other important developments that occur during a school year.

For students, this means that in addition to their test results, teachers, families, and other important adults can review other data. This includes classroom summative and formative assessments, survey feedback from parents, and reflections from the students about what they have learned that year.

For teachers, this means that standardized test scores will be combined with other metrics to determine teacher effectiveness.  These metrics include observational records from evaluators and peers, survey feedback from students and families, and reflections from the educator about areas of perceived strengths and weaknesses.

Standardized tests will likely remain a fixture in American schools for the foreseeable future.  However, that does not mean that they must take priority over all other measures.  Taken with data from other sources, standardized tests can provide useful feedback about achievement and growth for teachers and students alike.

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