Standardized Testing in Flux

One Way direction sign in front of a city scapeWhat do you think?

Is standardized testing essential to improving education in the United States?

Some say it has a clear-cut, positive effect on student achievement; provides a reliable and objective measure of student learning; and is an inclusive and nondiscriminatory measurement of student achievement that enables school systems to achieve significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student learning based on national and international assessments.

Or is standardized testing a burden to improving education in the United States?

Others say it does not improve student achievement; does not provide a reliable measure of student performance; is inherently unfair to non-English speaking students and children with special needs; and measures only a relatively insignificant portion of what makes education meaningful.

If you’re in a lather over this issue, you’re not alone. Face it, the issue is polarizing, and feelings run deep.

Standardized tests have been around for more than 150 years. So, why all this angst right now? Much of the debate crystallized after passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, which mandated annual testing on a national level. By requiring annual tests in grades 3–8, NCLB forced every state to take a hard look at how its individual students—and groups of students—were progressing. Clearly exposing the gaps in achievement has been an important tool for educational administrators in attempting to reform the system.

The call for national, standardized testing accelerated as students in the United States fell further behind those in many other countries, especially in math and science. Many other nations (most notably in Europe) place much more emphasis on mandating that schools develop curricula that teach to national college entrance exams, compared to the how U.S. school systems view the SAT and ACT.

At the same time, some education experts question whether standardized tests truly measure a student’s intelligence and learning, and whether minority and special needs students are at a disadvantage in taking the exam.

It’s impossible to determine which side is “right” in this increasingly heated debate. Instead, we asked several experts to weigh in on this issue.

MaryEllen Elia, New York state commissioner of education and president of the University of the State of New York (USNY) is a solid supporter of standardized testing: “I believe in high standards,” she says. “And I believe in rigorous assessment that challenges students to show that they’re on track to meet those high standards. Reasonable people can disagree about testing—but we have to know if children are progressing. New York’s tests have been nationally recognized for providing the most honest look at how prepared our students are for future success. So I’ve made it a priority to establish a dialogue with parents to help them better understand why we test.”

Joshua P. Starr, chief executive officer of Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International, says that standardized testing provides valuable information to teachers, families, school and district leaders, policymakers, and the research community. Policymakers, including local boards of education and local funding and legislative authorities, as well as state legislators, can use test score results to understand the impact of investments and the needs that exist among different school systems, he explains.

However, Starr says, standardized tests can have negative consequences on students if there are too many, if they’re not aligned to the curriculum, if results are not returned on time, and if they’re used to support ineffective policies or misguided decisions. “When there are too many standardized tests, teachers and schools may have to decide whether to limit other course offerings in order to ensure that students are prepared,” he says.

Rob Miller, a Principal of the Year finalist in 2014 and now the assistant superintendent of schools in Sand Springs, OK, is an outspoken opponent of standardized testing. “There are very few positives relative to the current state of standardized testing in our nation,” Miller says. He believes that standardized tests should provide meaningful, timely, and actionable results. For students, the tests should ideally be an accurate measure of how their individual skills and knowledge compare to a standard. For parents, the tests should provide insight into the academic progress of their child. For teachers and school leaders, the tests should be used as a tool to assess the overall effectiveness of the curriculum and instructional strategies used by the school/district.

However, Miller asserts, the reality is that standardized tests have mutated to the point where any potential value is greatly overshadowed by negatives. “Tests have become a blunt instrument used to rank, sort, and punish students, teachers, and schools,” he says. “They are being used by people on both sides of the political spectrum to perpetuate the false narrative that American public schools are failing and that teachers and school leaders are not sufficiently motivated to do anything about it.”

As a principal since the passage of NCLB in 2002, Miller says he’s grown to dislike and distrust standardized testing for a variety of reasons. For example, he explains, when tests given on one day of the school year are used to label students as inferior, to force them to be held back a grade level, or to be denied a high school diploma, the system has given tests too much influence in schools.

However, Starr says, NCLB has produced two clear-cut positive benefits. First, standardized tests help to level the playing field demographically. For too long, he explains, local school systems were able to provide different levels of services and education to students based on their demographics. Black, Latino, English-language learners, special education students, and financially disadvantaged students were relegated to an inferior education, oftentimes with fewer resources than white, middle class, and affluent students. While resources within and among districts are still an issue, school systems are now accountable for student outcomes based on the same standard, regardless of student demographics. Secondly, Starr says, NCLB was the impetus for many school leaders, teachers, and system leaders to learn how to use data to drive instructional improvement.

But standardized tests, whether or not they’re pursuant to NCLB or other mandates, focus too narrowly on the skills of reading and math to the detriment of other valuable subjects and learning activities, according to Miller. “They create anxiety among teachers and students and cause children to hate reading, math, and school. We should be creating lifelong learners, not lifelong test takers,” he argues.

The current tests measure mostly low-level skills and thinking processes. “This is harmful to children whom we should be preparing to be creative 21st-century thinkers and problem solvers,” Miller says. “The overemphasis on high-stakes testing has also caused many schools to neglect physical education, art, music, technology, and other ‘untested’ subjects,” he maintains.

In addition, testing takes time and resources. “My school administered more than 8,000 standardized tests over a three-week period, disrupting the entire schedule, forcing us to cancel electives, uproot students from computer classes, and generally suck the joy from school,” Miller says. “The focus on test preparation has the effect of irritating my best teachers and comforting my poor ones. I use the word ‘comforting’ because prepping kids for tests using worksheets and test prep books is one of the easier, yet uninspiring aspects of any teacher’s job. Likewise, the weeks of test prep prior to ‘testing season’ will bore some students into submission while frustrating higher-​level students into rebellion.”

Nationwide, standardized test scores are stagnating. Why? According to Miller, despite spending billions of dollars on this 15-year-old testing and accountability experiment, nearly all objective assessments show the movement has failed. Students no longer care, and parents are choosing to opt their children out of high-stakes testing at a record pace. New tests tied to “more rigorous standards” with unrealistic cut scores are causing more than half of students to score below proficient, Miller asserts.

Minority Students and Students with Disabilities

Those who are critical of standardized testing point to test scores that show minority students and those with disabilities do not perform as well as other students. However, supporters of standardized tests are certainly aware of this, and many are taking concrete steps to ameliorate the situation. In New York, Elia recently established a work group to address “persistent opportunity gaps faced by young men of color and to ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” The New York initiative is modeled on a national program called My Brother’s Keeper. “New York is the first to launch a statewide version,” explains Elia. “The work focuses on ensuring young children of color have a strong foundation before they get to school; providing these students with the support they need to get on and stay on track; and helping them complete college or career training and successfully enter the workforce.”

Higher Education Response

Fewer colleges and universities are making admissions tests mandatory. However, notes Starr, “The jury is out on the impact this will have on admissions, especially for underrepresented students from underresourced schools.” Depending on what criteria are being used to admit students, the bar may be higher than simply an SAT or ACT score, he explains. For example, he says, if admissions officers start taking into account writing samples or examples of student work more than they currently do, the question has to be asked whether the student had the resources in their school or family to support the revision of a writing sample multiple times. In addition, he asserts, if activities outside the classroom begin to carry more weight in the admissions process, how will the college account for students who have to work?

According to a recent PDK/Gallup poll, the public clearly feels that there’s too much emphasis on testing. “They’ve likely seen curricula narrowed and course offerings limited and perhaps have heard teachers and principals express concerns,” Starr explains. In addition, he says, some policies that rely too much on standardized tests don’t jibe with what parents feel is most important—teacher quality.The public and professional debate is likely to continue to heat up, education experts say, especially when you consider these varying viewpoints:

Starr: “I certainly agree that there’s too much emphasis on standardized testing and hope that the results of the PDK/Gallup poll will capture the attention of policymakers.”

Miller: “The use of standardized tests limits our teachers’ flexibility to differentiate instruction, stifles innovation, interferes with building student interest and engagement, and wrongly assumes that what the young will need to know in the future is already known. The constant chase for higher test scores takes our eye off the target of creating 21st-​century learners.”

Elia: “The bottom line is that annual assessment provides important information about individual students for parents and teachers, and it allows us to keep track of how all student groups are doing.”


Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.