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.

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