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Do Standardized Tests Improve Education?

By Kira Goldring
 Getty Images: Micah Walter
*Updated 2021
From Terra Novas and New York Regents to the more overwhelming SATs and GREs, standardized tests are the bane of many school-age students’ existence. First implemented in the 1800’s, standardized tests have now become the measure by which many elementary, middle and high school students are accepted or rejected from schools, eligible for scholarships, etc. Their use jumped in 2002 for students in grades K-12, after the No Child Left Behind act mandated that all 50 states implement standardized tests. But are these tests helping to bolster education, or are they a flawed tool? 
Here are three reasons supporting the claim that standardized tests negatively impact education, and three more reasons supporting it.


Standardized tests negatively impact education


Creativity crash

A long-standing trend of “teaching to the test” has become widespread in the US, which narrows teachers’ focus on only teaching subjects that will help students perform well on standardized tests. Yet, studies have shown that students are more successful when focused on learning rather than on exam performance. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, subjects such as art, social studies, foreign languages and music have been sidelined, as they are generally not tested on. In this vein, tests like the SATs – which only test for math and reading – don’t account for students’ strengths in other areas of learning, and only encourage a narrowing of the high school curriculum. These tests should be an evaluation tool for students’ overall intellect instead of only evaluating their test-taking abilities.


Not worth the cost

Standardized tests are astronomically expensive, using taxpayer dollars that could be put towards better use. A study found that standardized tests cost some states over $1.7 billion a year. America’s school system suffers from severe inequality. There are schools all over America that are in dire need of updated materials, funding for teachers, school psychologists, more after-school programming, etc., which a Rutgers University study shows as having a positive impact on student achievement. Instead, this money is currently going towards student assessments, and taking away essential resources from which students would highly benefit. Additionally, tests like the SATs may be biased towards those students who come from money; if they can afford to go to an expensive school or prep course, and if they have more time to study because they don’t have to work, then they will most likely perform better on such tests.


Taking it out on the teachers

Teachers’ success is partially measured by their students’ scores on standardized tests. However, these scores are dependent on all of the students’ teachers combined – not just on a singular teacher’s performance. Studies have long shown that standardized test scores are not a good predictor for teacher effectiveness, yet most states use them as an evaluative tool for teachers. In fact, before the pandemic, states like New York proposed to increase the weight of this tool on evaluating teacher performance to 50%. Such a system that punishes and rewards teachers based on test scores won’t contribute to better education for students.


Standardized tests improve education


Equal opportunity

Standardized tests ensure the education level in America is up to par – for everyone. The US’s Every Student Succeeds Act, which began in 2016, requires states to use proficiency on standardized exams as a method of holding elementary, middle and high schools accountable for their students’ success. This was intended to close the gap between minority and poverty-stricken students with those from higher-income families. Not only do standardized tests give every student the opportunity to learn the same material as their peers in other schools, but state funding laws incentivize schools to ensure every student does well on these exams. As Washington State’s Senator Patty Murray once said about education laws, “We know that if we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities.”


Objective measure

Regarding university admissions, it’s important to have an objective measure by which to evaluate applicants, especially regarding scholarship applications and determining academic placement. This is where standardized tests are beneficial, given that personal interviews and demographic information automatically subject evaluations to bias and human error. Colleges and universities need some sort of unbiased tools with which to screen applicants. These tests help place students in the appropriate place of learning by removing bias from the equation. The SATs are not perfect, but they provide a good service in that vein. The SATs (and other standardized tests) are largely comprised of multiple-choice questions and scored by machines, and thus provide an objective, statistically reliable criteria through which to compare student success. The SATs also show students’ proficiencies in a narrow focus instead of having their entire academic career come under the microscope.


Helps students succeed?

Standardized tests didn’t appear out of nowhere; there is evidence that they teach students important skills. In his book “Defending Standardized Testing,” Dr. Richard Phelps presents his findings after analyzing 100+ years of research on standardized tests, and concludes that 93% of studies have shown standardized tests as having a positive influence on student achievement. Additionally, cognitive studies have found that test-taking in general actually helps students retain information long-term.


The Bottom Line: While standardized tests even the playing field between students of all circumstances, their use may negatively impact student creativity and teacher evaluations unfairly. Do you think standardized tests should be part of the education system?

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