A Standardized Scam

The Failures of Standardized Tests in America

Thomas Werner

Opposing Opinions

Photo: The Odyssey Online

Standardized Tests Need to Stay

The Advantages of Standardized Tests in America

Elise Basil and Martin Werner

August 19th, 2017

Standardized testing and “teaching to the test” can be a good thing. Standardized tests are definitely important; we need a system in which we can systematically assess educational performance. In a country as big as America, a nationwide system in which we can easily see what is working and what needs to be improved makes sense, and I’m all for it. But our current system, the semantics of it all, is absolute trash.


In 2001, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act passed with flying colors and was signed into law by then president George W. Bush. It was intended “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” Under the act, each state develops its own standards, but in order to receive federal funding the state must implement assessments to all grade levels. NCLB received heavy criticism from all ends of the political spectrum, and was mostly thrown away in 2015 in favor of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)--but it did not do away with the standing standardized test systems.


The United States’ standardized test system sucks. Between 2002 (when NCLB was passed) and 2011, the US dropped from 18th in the world in math to 31st on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), with a similar drop in science and no movement in reading scores. In addition to this, from 2003 to 2012, PISA found virtually no change in the troubling racial achievement gap.



A 2011 National Research Council report found no evidence that test-based incentive programs are working: "Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education." In fact, it has been found that these tests are actually “unfair and discriminatory against non English speakers and students with special needs.” English as a second language (ESL) learners are required to take the tests before they fully understand the language, and special needs students commonly do not get the accommodations they need and would regularly get. The whole purpose of the tests has failed.


Blame for this failure can be found in many places. First of all, the tests themselves suck. For example, in 2012, the notorious “Pineapple and the Hare” story appeared on New York exams. You can read the ridiculous story and its respective questions here. Long story short, there was a story that made no sense about a pineapple and a hare racing, accompanied by even more confusing questions. Daniel Pinkwater, the author of the story, has chimed in on the controversy. He says the test company — which sells the test material for "vast sums of money" and pays the author "non-vast sums of money" — changed the story.


He writes:

"I don't know how the test publishing company changed the story. I gather they decided to call the rabbit a hare, and made the eggplant into a pineapple. Also there appears to be something about sleeves. And they made up questions for the students to answer. I would not have done any of these things. But it has nothing to do with me. I cashed the check they sent me after about 8 months, and took my wife out to lunch at a cheap restaurant. I believe, she ordered eggplant."


The monstrosity does not end there. The scoring of standardized tests is unreliable, inconsistent, and cheap. A 2001 study published by the Brookings Institution found that 50-80% of year-over-year test score improvements were temporary and "caused by fluctuations that had nothing to do with long-term changes in learning.” The tests also seem to only measure a narrow slit of education and intelligence. According to late education researcher Gerald W. Bracey, PhD, qualities that standardized tests cannot measure include "creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity." The formulaic and humdrum multiple choice format is destroying these types of thinking.


The non-multiple choice, open-ended parts of these tests provide no redemption for these flaws. Graders are paid menial wages to spend only a moment grading these questions, and errors are commonplace. For example, in 2010, Florida’s tests, administered by NCS Pearson, which holds a nine figure testing contract with the state, delivered results over a month late—and these results were challenged by over half the state’s superintendents.


These failures lead to unreliable and inconsistent assessment--the heart of the standardized test system. They do not properly identify successes and failures. This itself is a critical failure, because state governments rely on standardized test “success” to determine funding for schools. When the “success” is random, the funding is--and the system fails. One teacher’s student even had a predicted score higher than the highest score possible on the test. The student ended up with a perfect score on the test--but it still counted negatively towards the teacher’s evaluation.


Despite these failures, there remains huge pressure and reliance on standardized tests. Students are put under enormous pressure to perform on these crucial tests. There is even an official procedure for what to do if a student throws up during the test--a common occurrence. However, you may just blame this on chance, because of how many tests students take the test; they’re bound to throw up at some point. A Council of the Great City Schools study found that students take a whopping average total of 112 standardized tests from kindergarten to senior year. This is in contrast with most of the other countries that outperform the US on international exams, who average only three tests throughout their school year.


This unnatural and constant testing results in unnatural preparation and teaching methods. Teachers spend lopsided amounts of time “teaching for the test.” This severely limits education, with some schools allocating more than a quarter of their instructional time for test preparation. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2001, 44% of school districts had reduced the time spent on science, social studies, and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week, in order to focus on reading and math. A 2007 survey of 1,250 civics, government, and social studies teachers showed that 75% of those teaching current events less often cited standardized tests as the reason.


Teaching to the test becomes a circular problem, because it means that the tests only test a small portion of education. Even if they worked, we would only have a glimpse of our student’s progress.


These problems are not going to go away soon. Like so many things, cash rules everything. Standardized tests are run by large companies, who are, of course, incentivized to make money. Most noteable is Pearson, which, as of 2012, controls about 40% of the testing market. Their influence is huge. They own student tests, teacher certifications, learning disability tests, review books, text books, and now even the GED. John Oliver affectionately calls them “the educational equivalent of Time Warner Cable”. They are rolling in money, and still are failing (remember the pineapple question? Yea, that was them).


But what other option do we have? America is a huge country, and a system to evaluate student and teacher performance is essential. To start looking for a solution, take a look at the countries that consistently outperform the US. Finland, which has topped the PISA rankings from 2001 to 2008, utilizes "no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools," according to Stanford University researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Laura McCloskey. Success has been achieved using "assessments that encourage students to be active learners who can find, analyze, and use information to solve problems in novel situations."


So there is hope. The system we are on now is failing and will be a behemoth to take down, but there is hope.

Standardized testing’s main purpose is to assess the basic skills of students all over the world, an important job in today’s education. However, those assessed feel that the current model fails to perform its job efficiently.


Often, people find that standardized testing has teachers “teaching to the test.” Parents worry students are drilled on learning how to take a test, rather than learning the material. However, a study from the Education Policy Analysis Archives concludes that most teachers know very well that such drill-type learning is unacceptable. Most educators know that this kind of teaching does not even produce higher test score gains, leading to a very uncommon application. When taught, it shows a symptom of a bad teacher, not a bad system of tests.


In reality, testing measures how well the teacher has taught assigned curriculum without alteration (tailored to the test). Standardized tests mostly encourage teachers to do a better job teaching. Without them, nothing holds the teachers accountable for what they teach or how well they do it. In fact, it seems that they give schools a teaching boost. According to a study by Public Agenda in 1998, 66% of college professors believed that elementary and high schools taught students too little, but after a surge in standardized testing in 2002, this figure had reduced to 47%.


Another way mandated testing helps education is by providing feedback and encouraging student improvement. According to a 100-year analysis of testing research, 93% of studies found that testing surprisingly had a positive effect on student achievement so long as feedback was provided. When a student receives feedback, they are motivated either to improve or to continue their regimen of achievement. Therefore, it’s critical to resume testing, furthering our education in the process.


One of the greatest benefits of standardized testing is much more data that allows for improvement of students. The data helps schools make informed decisions about students; if a student is struggling behind their classmates, the results of a test reveal this detail, allowing the school to then assist the student with their weaknesses. Without the massive amounts of data collected by standardized testing, our school system would be helpless. Schools could try to base their decisions on regular test grades, but these kind of tests are graded differently by every teacher and are much more subjective and provide unreliable data.


Standardized testing also provides data that reveals certain disparities within schools that would go unnoticed otherwise. For example, standardized testing helped expose an achievement gap in schools across the United States and start the planning to close it. Some claim the tests themselves have caused this gap, but it is school systems to blame.


The United States’ educational system is often compared to other countries’ in order to disparage American test results. For example, some countries with barely any standardized tests, like Finland, have much more successful students than those in the U.S. However, it becomes clear that standardized tests are not the culprit for these differences when you look at China. China’s educational system is more successful than Finland’s, while heavily relying on standardized tests: the Gaokao basically decides a student’s entire future. Tests like this exist in other countries with successful educational systems as well, like the Abitur in Germany or the Bac in France. There is also a significant irony here, which is that standardized tests are the only way we can compare these things. The only reason people can know that Finland’s educational system is better than the United States’ is because Finland still supplies standardized tests, just not as much. So again, it becomes clear how important the data provided by these tests really are.


Standardized tests are even common outside of education because of their value. Various professionals, like pilots, must take standardized tests to ensure they know how to perform their job successfully. No test is perfect, but these tests, like standardized tests in schools, are necessary for evaluation.


Two problems people find with the United States’ current system of standardized testing are stress and unfairness. However, those who are against standardized tests because of these reasons often exaggerate them.


A study from the University of Arkansas found that "the vast majority of students do not exhibit stress and have positive attitudes towards standardized testing programs." Many blame standardized tests for creating intense stress, but this shows that this is simply not the case. Vomiting rates are often referred to as a way to advocate against standardized tests, but this vomiting is often due to reasons other than stress. It is also “common” because of the number of students that take standardized tests each year; people vomit all the time.


One other problem many find with standardized tests is unfairness, as some people are better at taking tests, whether or not they know the material. However, standardized tests must go through rigorous testing themselves to make sure they are fair under all circumstances. For those that have a hard time with test taking, accommodations are met. For instance, timing extensions are available for students with ADD/ADHD. Most students themselves find standardized tests to be fair: another Public Agenda study found that 79% of students believe that their standardized test questions are fair.


We need standardized tests and the data they collect to keep schools, teachers, and students accountable. We need standardized tests to give students feedback and encourage them to achieve more. Many of the problems associated with standardized tests, like the achievement gap, or “teaching to the test,” are symptoms of the school/teacher itself. Without standardized tests, the United States’ education system would be far worse than it is today.