Both Sides of the Argument

PROS

  • Standardized tests are inclusive and non-discriminatory because they ensure content is equivalent for all students. Former Washington, DC, schools chancellor Michelle Rhee argues that using alternate tests for minorities or exempting children with disabilities would be unfair to those students: “You can’t separate them, and to try to do so creates two, unequal systems, one with accountability and one without it. This is a civil rights issue.”
  • China has along tradition of standardized testing and leads the world in educational achievement.
  • “Teaching to the test” can be a good thing because it focuses on essential content and skills, eliminates time-wasting activities that don’t produce learning gains, and motivates students to excel. The US Department of Education stated in Nov. 2004 that “if teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested–and probably much more.”
  • Testing is not too stressful for students. The US Department of Education stated: “Although testing may be stressful for some students, testing is a normal and expected way of assessing what students have learned.” A Nov. 2001 University of Arkansas study found that “the vast majority of students do not exhibit stress and have positive attitudes towards standardized testing programs.” Young students vomit at their desks for a variety of reasons, but only in rare cases is this the result of testing anxiety.
  • Stricter standards and increased testing are better preparing school students for college. In Jan. 1998, Public Agenda found that 66% of college professors said “elementary and high schools expect students to learn too little.” By Mar. 2002, after a surge in testing and the passing of NCLB, that figure dropped to 47% “in direct support of higher expectations, strengthened standards and better tests.”
  • Cheating by teachers and administrators on standardized tests is rare, and not a reason to stop testing America’s children. The Mar. 2011 USA Today investigation of scoring anomalies was inconclusive, and found compelling suggestions of impropriety in only one school. It is likely that some cheating occurs, but some people cheat on their tax returns also, and the solution is not to abolish taxation. 

CONS

  • Standardized tests are unfair and discriminatory against non English speakers and students with special needs. English language learners take tests in English before they have mastered the language. Special education students take the same tests as other children, receiving few of the accommodations usually provided to them as part of their Individualized Education Plans (IEP)
  • Standardized tests measure only a small portion of what makes education meaningful. 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.”
  • Instruction time is being consumed by monotonous test preparation. Some schools allocate more than a quarter of the year’s instruction to test prep. After New York City’s reading and math scores plunged in 2010, many schools imposed extra measures to avoid being shut down, including daily two and a half hour prep sessions and test practice on vacation days. On Sep. 11, 2002, students at Monterey High School in Lubbock, TX, were prevented from discussing the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks because they were too busy with standardized test preparation.
  • Standardized tests are not objective. A paper published in the Fall 2002 edition of the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources stated that scores vary due to subjective decisions made during test design and administration: “Simply changing the relative weight of algebra and geometry in NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) altered the gap between black and white students.
  • Using test scores to reward and punish teachers and schools encourages them to cheat the system for their own gain. A 2011 USA Today investigation of six states and Washington DC found 1,610 suspicious anomalies in year-over-year test score gains.
  • Standardized tests are an imprecise measure of teacher performance, yet they are used to reward and punish teachers. According to a Sep. 2010 report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, over 17% of Houston teachers ranked in the top category on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills reading test were ranked among the two lowest categories on the equivalent Stanford Achievement Test. The results “were based on the same students, tested in the same subject, at approximately the same time of year, using two different tests.
  • Each state develops its own NCLB standards and assessments, providing no basis for meaningful comparison. A student sitting for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) is asked a completely different set of questions from a child in California taking the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test, and while the former includes essay questions, the latter is entirely multiple-choice.
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Standardized Testing: An Overview

Standardized tests have been a part of American education since the mid-1800s. Their use skyrocketed after 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated annual testing in all 50 states. US students slipped from 18th in the world in math in 2000 to 31st place in 2009, with a similar decline in science and no change in reading. Failures in the education system have been blamed on rising poverty levels, teacher quality, tenure policies, and increasingly on the pervasive use of standardized tests.

Proponents argue that standardized tests are a fair and objective measure of student ability, that they ensure teachers and schools are accountable to taxpayers, and that the most relevant constituents – parents and students – approve of testing.

Opponents say the tests are neither fair nor objective, that their use promotes a narrow curriculum and drill-like “teaching to the test,” and that excessive testing undermines America’s ability to produce innovators and critical thinkers.

Many kinds of standardized tests are in use, but high-stakes achievement tests have provoked the most controversy. These assessments carry important consequences for students, teachers and schools: low scores can prevent a student from progressing to the next grade level or lead to teacher firings and school closures, while high scores ensure continued federal and local funding and are used to reward teachers and administrators with bonus payments.