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Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 05/27/2010

What’s wrong with standardized tests?

By Valerie Strauss

Standardized tests are used for so many purposes in schools today that it can be easy to forget why they shouldn’t be used as an exclusive measure to determine anything of importance.

Let's review. Following are questions and answers explaining why. This material comes from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a non-profit organization known as FairTest that is dedicated to stopping the misuse of standardized assessments.

How do schools use standardized tests?
Schools use standardized tests to determine if children are ready for school, track them into instructional groups; diagnose for learning disability, retardation and other handicaps; and decide whether to promote, retain in grade, or graduate many students. Schools also use tests to guide and control curriculum content and teaching methods.

Aren’t these valid uses of test scores?
No test is good enough to serve as the sole or primary basis for important educational decisions. Readiness tests, used to determine if a child is ready for school, are very inaccurate and encourage the use of overly academic, developmentally inappropriate
primary schooling (that is, schooling not appropriate to the child’s emotional, social or intellectual development and to the variation in children’s development).

Screening tests for disabilities are often not adequately validated; that is, it is not proven that they are accurately measuring for disabilities. They also promote a view of children as having deficits to be corrected, rather than having individual differences and strengths on which to build. While screening tests are supposed to be used to refer children for further diagnosis, they often are used to place children in special programs.

Tracking hurts slower students and mostly does not help more advanced students.

Retention in grade, or flunking or leaving a student back, is almost always academically and emotionally harmful, not helpful. Test content is a very poor basis for determining curriculum content, and teaching methods based on the test are themselves harmful.

Who is most hurt by these practices?
Students from low-income and minority-group backgrounds are more likely to be retained in grade, placed in a lower track, or put in special or remedial education programs when it is not necessary. They are more likely to be given a watered-down or "dummied-down" curriculum, based heavily on rote drill and test practice. This only ensures they will fall further and further behind their peers. On the other hand, children from white, middle and upper income backgrounds are more likely to be placed in "gifted and talented" or college preparatory programs where they are challenged to read, explore, investigate, think and progress rapidly.

How do tests control curriculum and instruction?
In many districts, raising test scores has become the single most important indicator of school improvement. As a result, teachers and administrators feel enormous pressure to ensure that test scores go up. Schools narrow and change the curriculum to match the test. Teachers teach only what is covered on the test. Methods of teaching conform to the multiple-choice format of the tests. Teaching more and more resembles testing.

Does "teaching to the test" increase student capabilities and knowledge?
This depends on whether the test is good. For multiple-choice tests, "teaching to the test" means focusing on the content that will be on the test, sometimes even drilling on test items, and using the format of the test as a basis for teaching. Since this kind of teaching to the test leads primarily to improved test-taking skills, increases in test scores do not necessarily mean improvement in real academic performance.

Teaching to the test also narrows the curriculum, forcing teachers and students to concentrate on memorization of isolated facts, instead of developing fundamental and higher order abilities. For example, multiple-choice writing tests are really copy-editing tests, which do not measure the ability to organize or communicate ideas. Practicing on tests or test-like exercises is not how to learn even the mechanics of English, much less how to write like a writer.

Don’t standardized tests provide accountability?
No. Tests that measure as little and as poorly as multiple-choice tests cannot provide genuine accountability. Pressure to teach to the test distorts and narrows education. Instead of being accountable to parents, community, teachers and students, schools become "accountable" to a completely unregulated testing industry.

If we don’t use standardized tests, how will we know how students and programs are doing?
Better methods of evaluating student needs and progress already exist. Good observational checklists used by trained teachers are more helpful than any screening test. Assessment based on student performance on real learning tasks is more useful and accurate for measuring achievement - and provides more information - than multiple-choice achievement tests.

Are other methods of assessment as reliable as standardized multiple-choice tests?
Trained teams of judges can be used to rate performance in most any academic or non-academic area. In the Olympic Games, for example, gymnasts and divers are rated by panels of judges, and the high and low scores are thrown out. Studies have shown that, with training, the level of agreement among judges (the "inter-rater reliability") is high. As with multiple-choice tests, it is necessary to enact safeguards to ensure that race, class, gender, linguistic or other cultural biases do not affect evaluation.

How do other nations evaluate their students?
The U.S. is the only economically advanced nation to rely heavily on multiple-choice tests. Other nations use performance-based assessment where students are evaluated on the basis of real work such as essays, projects and activities. Ironically, because these nations do not focus on teaching to multiple-choice tests, they even score higher than U.S. students on those kinds of tests.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 27, 2010; 11:59 AM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  dangers of high-stakes standardized tests, high-stakes standardized tests, obama administration and school reform, obama and standardized tests, obama and tests, standardized tests  
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Next: Postcards to Mrs. Obama: End high-stakes testing


"The U.S. is the only economically advanced nation to rely heavily on multiple-choice tests."

As far as I know, Britain, France and Germany rely upon A-levels, the Bac, and the Abitur, respectively, to determine whether students will be permitted to attend university. South Korea and Japan are famous for their reliance upon standardized tests. These economically advanced nations all rely upon standardized tests, not "real work such as essays, projects and activities."

Posted by: terriblyboring | May 27, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for sharing the truth about advanced nations that DO rely upon standardized tests to determine student progress/achievement.

Posted by: TwoSons | May 27, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

terriblyboring--I noticed that you indicated that the other countries you mentioned use standardized tests to determine whether or not a student can attend university. That sounds much like our SAT and ACT. The distinction between these tests and the MSA (Maryland State Assessments) or other state tests (not including those required for high school graduation) is that there is an incentive for students to perform well on these tests. If they don't do well, then they don't go to college.

The MSA's offer no such incentive. Likewise there are no consequences if students perform poorly. These tests don't affect their grades or keep them from being promoted to the next grade level. I would suggest that students and their parents would take these tests much more seriously if there were incentives or consequences. Currently proposed reforms only want to create incentives and consequences for the teacher.

You would not believe the hype we have to engage in to make sure students show up on time at school on MSA days. Some schools have PEP rallies! As a teacher, I find that there is just too much emphasis on them. I'm not suggesting they be done away with. I'm suggesting that they be just a part of what comprises a teacher's evaluation.

Posted by: musiclady | May 27, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse


Japan utilizes standardized testing for their students that beginning at PreK through upper secondary:

"The Japanese system places great emphasis on the use of exams as qualifiers for all levels of schooling. Exams exist for students entering preschool, primary, lower secondary, upper secondary, and universities. Yet clearly the most crucial tests are those given for entrance to the upper secondary schools (high school) and universities. The high school entrance tests are mainly for determining what type of school students will attend—not if they will attend, because well over 90 percent of middle school students go on to high school. Both private and public high schools require such tests and usually test students in five main fields: English, mathematics, Japanese, social studies, and science."

Japan - Educational System—overview

Posted by: TwoSons | May 27, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

BTW...please note that Japanese students are also tested on the English language as one of the "five main fields"

It's amazing that primary students are learning to master, and tested on, not only their own language (Japanese) but also English.

Posted by: TwoSons | May 27, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse


Maybe Japan and other countries do use standardized testing. But those countries also have a culture in which children and their families are held accountable for their own performance. Teachers are not scapegoats for every social ill that comes into their classrooms.

Teachers spend fewer hours per day on their feet teaching, and more time in planning lessons, collaborating with other teachers, and evaluating student work. It's a completely different culture with regard to the role of teachers and the responsibilities of students.

As for the standardized tests- before making comparisons, it might be a good idea to investigate how they use the tests. Are they used to incriminate teachers, or to determine whether students are doing their work? And just because the Japanese use standardized tests doesn't mean the tests are the best measure of learning, either.

Posted by: aed3 | May 27, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

It is true that many other nations use standardized, high-stakes tests for their students; I think the point, though, is that they aren't just multiple-choice exams. For example, Romania uses national tests to place students both in high school and college, but the tests are almost entirely essays, which requires a bit more from students than just filling in the right bubble. To succeed on an essay test, you have to know more content, since you can't rely on guessing.

Posted by: LadybugLa | May 27, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse


Another thing---it isn't amazing that children can learn two languages. This is the norm in countries all over the world, in many parts of Canada for example. It's no big trick for a child to master more than one language, if given the opportunity.

Posted by: aed3 | May 27, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm tired of hearing that one doesn't have to "do" anything to answer a question on a multiple choice test. Board as well as licensing examinations for physicians are multiple choice, but there is no way that someone can pass it without knowing a great deal or studying long and hard.

Physics, chemistry, and math multiple choice tests require people to solve problems before they answer a question.

The only field where MC may be inappropriate is English, and I have a feeling that most of this anti-MC sentiment is flowing from that sector.

Posted by: physicsteacher | May 28, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who knows anything about how standardized tests are constructed, and, I suspect, a lot of students who discern a pattern without being able to identify it, has a better chance of getting the right answer even if a question is in a foreign language the student doesn't understand. About a year ago I took a computerized Spanish placement test and tested a bit higher then the subsequent class revealed my fluency to be. Having worked on preparing standardized material, I handled questions I wasn't sure of by looking at the last several answers: if the "nonsense" answer was usually the last choice, I could eliminate that possibility, and if the last two correct answers were "C," I knew the next answer was probably not "C," since policy insists that the same letter not be used more than two or three times in a row.

(I also remember a teacher who gave a matching test--20 terms to be matched to 20 other terms--and then wondered aloud who somebody managed to only get 2 correct. He said if we couldn't even read English and just matched at random, we probably should have done better than that by pure chance!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 28, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

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