Standardized Testing Pros and Cons

The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing

Photo by Josh Davis

Standardized testing has been one of the most controversial subjects in education since its creation during the era of World War I and the Model T Ford. Frederick J. Kelly initially developed standardized tests as a crude measure of “lower order” thinking skills, intended to help streamline America’s quickly expanding public education system, but 14 years later, when standardized tests had become a pervasive aspect of both public and higher education, Kelly disavowed his own creation. Instead, he argued for “liberal, integrated, problem-based learning” as the basis of education. So what are the real pros and cons of standardized education?

Standardized Testing Pros

Standardized testing is easier to administer than more complex, nuanced and individualized forms of educational evaluation. A single test can be written and administered in a uniform fashion at relatively low cost. Computer grading also minimizes the strain on educators. This argument is compelling for monetary and logistical reasons.

Standardized tests are arguably more objective than other evaluative measures, and what biases they do have can be uniformly obvious in the results.

Operating a streamlined public education system requires measures of accountability to insure that all students learn certain basic skills and concepts, while educators and institutions must perform according to certain measurable standards.

Standardized Testing Cons

Outdated Theoretical Basis
Standardized tests have evolved to some degree since their creation nearly a century ago, but they still primarily test accumulated knowledge and very basic skills, while educational theory now emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving skills over the memorization of rote knowledge.

Inappropriate Interpretation of Results
Standardized test results can provide data for tracking students, evaluating educators and shaping educational policy — but that data needs to be carefully understood and considered along with qualitative measures of performance. Misinterpreting or overemphasizing test results often leads to material and emotional costs for students, teachers and society as a whole.

Persistent Biases
Standardized tests do not produce standardized results across demographics. White, middle-class Americans score highest on most standardized tests because the tests are designed for students with their cultural and economic backgrounds. Women and men also tend to score differently on certain standardized tests.

Distortion of Curriculum
The increasing emphasis placed on standardized testing as a measure of teacher performance and as a funding distribution tool has created extraordinary pressures for teachers to “teach to the test.” This restricts teachers’ abilities to adapt curricula to the particular needs of their students, and compels them to teach basic facts rather than real intellectual and life skills. This evaluative measure also rewards those who take time away from the curriculum to teach test-taking strategies.

Standardized Test Preparation
Whether you are a proponent or a critic of standardized testing, one thing everyone can agree on is that test preparation significantly boosts results. And not only public school students take standardized tests; adults have to pass standardized tests to apply to institutions of higher education, and to become teachers, doctors and lawyers. So if you are preparing for the Praxis II or the LSAT, the best thing to do is to prepare thoroughly. Despite the biases of the tests and the imperfect way our society utilizes the results, proper test preparation will keep you calm on test day and give you a leg up on your competitors.

Productive Use of Standardized Testing
If you consider the pros and cons of standardized testing, these tests can serve a useful purpose when administered to measure the things they actually do measure. Equally important is that the test results are comprehensible and used for appropriate purposes by individuals who understand them. One effective use of standardized tests is to identify students who may have learning disabilities and who therefore require special education. In this scenario, students who require special services in order to participate in public education are screened by a combination of standardized testing and other measures. And rather than being penalized for low scores, the system finds other ways to accommodate them.

Unproductive Use of Standardized Testing
An example of a less productive use of standardized testing would be the recent publication of data on the performance of 1,800 teachers in New York City based entirely on their students’ standardized test scores. This data, riddled with inaccuracies and intended to be used as one of several measures in evaluating teacher performance, was made public against the wishes of many educators as well as the educational experts who designed the teacher-rating system. The publication of the data exposed teachers to scrutiny and pressure from students, parents and administrators based on test scores of often-questionable significance.

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