Standardized Tests: Still Going Strong?
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
Joseph M. Demma
July 26, 2020
The most recent report on annual public school expenditures shows that taxpayers in the United States of America spent $739 billion on the education of 51 million students in FY2017 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). These funds are audited, and student learning is measured using standardized tests administered by states and school districts. And this makes sense, because of that $739 billion, 82.7% comes from state and local taxes (United States Department of Education, 2005). In addition to accountability and learning measurements, standardized tests diagnose student strengths, weaknesses, and learning disabilities. Standardized tests also serve as essential tools for program selection and teacher planning.
And, for their efforts, standardized tests face an endless barrage of attacks and criticism. Dr. W. James Popham, a renowned professor emeritus at the University of California-Los Angeles, uses words like “inane, destructive, absurd, and unsound” (2005) as he advocates for the elimination of standardized tests. For Dr. Popham (1999), these evaluations will “always contain many items that are not aligned” with instruction.
Incendiary rhetoric aside, standardized tests are the only objective way for policymakers and appropriators to audit education expenditures and understand student learning. Moreover, when written correctly and aligned with classroom learning and academic standards, standardized tests provide essential data for students, parents, and teachers.
Benefits of Standardized testing
Criterion-referenced standardized tests have been used for generations to measure student performance (Sutton and Siefert, n.d., p.338). As is the case with any significant public policy initiative, review and refinement have been a part of the standardized test life-cycle. For instance, standardized tests are now primarily tied to content standards such as the Common Core State Standards (2010) and New York State’s Next Generation Learning Standards (2017). These standards are sets of uniform academic expectations for grades K-12 and help shape curriculum across public schools.
Planning and Motivation
Data collected from standardized tests are used to diagnose students, teachers, and schools. Not only does information help us understand what a student does or does not know, but they can also help target those populations in need of special attention (Sutton and Siefert, n.d.). Thoughtful classroom teachers will use this data as a baseline for lesson strategies, including technique modification and lesson focus. Naturally, not all teachers are excited about empirical data tied to the effectiveness of their lessons. Furthermore, when put into the high-stakes context of data which may threaten their career status, teachers and administrators are understandably anxious.
However, much of the rhetoric around teacher angst appears to be anecdotal and driven by a vocal minority. Research shows that an overwhelming majority of students, teachers, and schools are motivated by standardized tests to demonstrate their competence, even mastery, of subject material (Phelps, 2003).
Rather than focus on accountability alternatives, opponents of standardized tests use emotionally charged words like ‘high stakes’ to position themselves as victims of oppression. To be sure, the moment “important consequences” (Sutton and Seifert, n.d., p.339) are tied to the results of these tests; they can have ‘high-stakes.’ For students, a bad score on a test can affect their placement in a desired program or school. Teachers may find their occupational status in jeopardy if they perform poorly on a PRAXIS exam or through poor student performance on a classroom test.
However, simply because a consequence is tied to an assessment does not merit the discontinuation of that assessment. Individuals who cannot pass a standardized driver license exam, for example, should perhaps not immediately be set loose on public roads. Those seeking to work in healthcare but unable to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) might want to reassess their career interest.
Furthermore, the pressure felt by teachers and students is not theirs alone. For those tasked with appropriating education dollars to schools, their administrative or political careers may be on the line if decisions are not based on reliable data. The only objective way to monitor student learning and track education spending is by using standardized tests.
Standardized Test Criticisms
Those who oppose standardized testing as an evaluation tool have several arguments that they deploy. A common criticism is that they are a poor measurement tool that assesses “only lower-order skills and knowledge” (Goodman and Hambleton, 2005, p.92). Dr. Popham (1999) adds that “standardized achievement tests will always contain many items that are not aligned with instruction.” One can quibble with the cavalier use of the word ‘always,’ but assessment alignment and overall development can be a valid concern if not done well.
Another criticism of standardized tests revolves around time as a prohibitive cost measure. Critics argue that teachers spend too much time ‘teaching to the test’, and students spend too much time preparing for and taking tests, which distracts from “genuine learning” (Berwick, 2019). And while it is possible, even likely, that poor instruction is occurring in classrooms that misuse time, research shows that “formative assessments, done repeatedly with specific, timely feedback, will drive knowledge and skills” (Johnson, 2016). Research going back decades confirms the effectiveness of repeat testing as support for motivation and self-efficacy (Friedman, 1987).
A primary opponent of standardized testing, the National Education Association (NEA), pulls no punches as it calls for a unified protest of “toxic standardized testing” (2019) by opting out of student participation. Because of their political influence and pro-student reputation, the NEA is influencing parents across the country to exercising civil disobedience through non-participation in standardized tests. For example, the Utah State Board of Education (2020) allows parents to exclude their children from participating in standard
The distrust of standardized tests appears rooted in uneasiness over standards, and it is worth exploring why. For many, these standards are at worst, arbitrary, and, at best, driven by misguided good intentions. It is important to note that uniform standards did not just appear out of nowhere and are modifiable across jurisdictions.
Published in 2010 as a reaction to varying expectations across inconsistent academic standards of each of the states, Common Core State Standards implemented research learned from a yearlong series of workshops involving K-12 teachers, higher education officials, governors (and other state officials), and members of the public (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010). The adoption of these standards was tied to federal funding, yet states could modify these standards to meet the unique needs of their constituency. For instance, New York State adopted its Next Generation Learning Standards (2017) after two years of work involving review committees of educators and parents.
One of the most vocal opponents of standardized tests, Mr. Popham (1999), concedes that “standardized tests do a wonderful job of supplying evidence of student knowledge,” yet he remains intent that they not be used to measure the quality of education. However, research going back decades confirms the effectiveness of standardized tests as not only a measure of student learning but also support for education quality metrics like student motivation and self-efficacy (Friedman, 1987). A great example of the effective deployment of in-class standardized testing occurred at North Carolina Central University, where they saw an immediate 6% increase in student pass-rates on the NCLEX-RN exam (Alameida, Prive, Davis, Landry, Renwanz-Boyle, & Dunham, 2011).
Policymakers, either at the state or local level, are tasked with using standardized test results to direct funding for schools. And, while some protocols call for low-performing schools to lose money, this is not a process that happens overnight. Research shows that creative funding strategies that target low-performing schools, especially in low-income school districts, can significantly reduce the achievement gap (Rothstein, Lafortune, & Schanzenback, 2016). Without results from standardized tests, it would be impossible to objectively direct these funds and improve learning opportunities for our most vulnerable student cohort.
Standardized tests are not perfect. Unless they align with standards, standardized tests are everything the critics say they are: ineffective, time-consuming, and unsound. However, standardized test results are the only way for policymakers to measure school performance objectively. These measurements can identify schools that need more resources to support student learning.
Beyond the financial calculations, appropriately crafted assessments that align with thoughtfully developed standards are powerful classroom tools. The alignment of standards and instruction and assessments can demonstrate real cognitive development and assure everyone that ‘teaching to the test’ is not a pejorative remark, instead precisely how our classrooms ought to be managed.
Alameida, M.D., Prive, A., Davis, H.S., Landry, L., Renwanz-Boyle, A., & Dunham, M. (2011, May). Predicting NCLEX-RN Success in a Diverse Student Population. Journal of Nursing Education, 50 (5), 261-267. doi: 10.3928/01484834-20110228-01
Berwick, C. (2019, October 25). What does the research say about testing? https://www.edutopia.org/article/what-does-research-say-about-testing
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). http://corestandards.org
Friedman, H. (1987). Repeat Examinations in Introductory Statistics Courses. Teaching of Psychology, 14(1), 20–23.
Goodman, D., & Hambleton, R. K. (2005). Some misconceptions about large-scale educational assessments. In Phelps (Ed.), Defending standardized testing (p. 91–110). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Johnson, B. (2016, February 19). Is it wrong to teach to the test? https://www.edutopia.org/blog/it-wrong-teach-test-ben-johnson
Jones, C. (2019, February 4). $81 Million in federal money for Utah schools at risk from standardized test opt-out rates. KUTV-Channel 2. https://kutv.com/news/local/90-million- in-federal-money-for-utah-schools-at-risk-from-standardized-test-opt-out- rates#:~:text=The%20state%20of%20Utah%20gives,they%20object%20to%20the%20te sting.
Lee, M.I. (n.d.). Common Core State Standards: What You Need to Know. https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/partnering-with-childs-school/tests- standards/common-core-state-standards-what-you-need-to-know
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). The Condition of Education 2019. Public School Expenditures. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp
National Education Association. (2019). Does Your State or School District Have a Policy on Opt-Outs? – How You Can Advocate for One. http://www.nea.org/home/62527.htm#:~:text=Act%20in%20Solidarity%20with%20Othe r%20Educators%20and%20Your%20Local%20and,that%20serve%20no%20educational %20purpose.
New York State Next Generation Learning Standards. (2017, September 11).
Phelps, R.P. (2003). Nonpartisan Education Review / Resources.
Popham, W.J. (1999). Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality. Educational Leadership. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational- leadership/mar99/vol56/num06/Why-Standardized-Tests-Don%27t-Measure- Educational-Quality.aspx
Popham, W.J. (2005). Standardized Testing Fails the Exam. https://www.edutopia.org/standardized-testing-evaluation-reform
Rothstein, J., Lafortune, J., & Schanzenback, D.W. (2016, March 16). Can school finance reforms improve student achievement? Washington Center for Equitable Growth. http://equitablegrowth.org/research-analysis/can-school-finance-reforms-improve- student-achievement/.
Sutton, R. and Seifert, K. (n.d.). Educational Psychology. The Open University of Hong Kong and The Global Textbook Project. Available under Creative Commons-Share Alike 4.0 International License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
U.S. Department of Education. (2005). No Child Left Behind: 10 Facts about K-12 Education Funding. https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/10facts.pdf
Utah State Board of Education. (2020). Parental Exclusion from State Assessments Form. https://schools.utah.gov/file/f21db7b8-90f7-4352-b0f6-1480e0f5eb72