Standardized Testing

July 16, 2006

The following is excerpted from a pamphlet recently published by the Committee to Defend Public Education. For more information see the website:

The "No Child Left Behind" law, passed in 2002, requires every elementary student in grades 3-8 to take yearly standardized tests in reading and math. Test scores are used to judge schools on the basis of the percentage of students passing the tests. Schools in which students fail to perform well face a series of penalties, including cutoff of Title I funds, reorganization, closure and partial or complete privatization. In 2005, approximately 25% of the country's 15,000 school districts faced penalties as a result of failure to make adequate progress in test scores.

Most states and many cities require additional standardized tests; at least 17 states require students to pass a standardized exam in order to graduate high school. Other states and cities retain students who fail standardized tests. Students take more than 100 million standardized tests every year at a cost of more than $20 billion/year.

Standardized tests are also used by many public school districts to determine which students are admitted to magnet or special schools or whether a student will pursue a college preparatory or vocational curriculum. Standardized tests, such as the ACT, also play a big role in college admission and the availability of scholarship funds for college students.

The justification for these high-stakes standardized tests is that a student's score measures his/her educational performance and ability. Beginning as early as kindergarten, a student's scores determine what quality of school he/she attends, whether or not he/she is retained or advanced to the next grade, whether he/she graduates high school, what college he/she attends, etc. Yet more, tests scores are used to measure the educational performance and level of entire communities and, in turn, to determine what educational resources will be made available to communities.

But does a single numerical score derived from which circles a student marks on a standardized test accurately measure educational performance and ability? The answer is a resounding: "No!"

Standardized tests, at most, measure how many discrete bits of fragmented "knowledge" a given student has memorized. Creativity, life experience, and other aspects of knowledge and ability are not generally reflected in the standardized test score.

In most states students with learning disabilities or non-native English speakers take the same standardized test as everyone else. The Government Accounting Office reported that during the 2003-2004 school year, 95% of the country's 6 million students with disabilities were forced to take the same standardized reading tests as others. . . .

In addition, many scientific studies have proven that standardized tests have built-in biases, biases which discriminate against working class students, minorities, females, etc. . . .

Perhaps, most importantly, the problem with high-stakes standardized tests is that they are not used as a diagnostic and educational device, side by side with other methods of evaluation (e.g. teachers' observations, effort, rate of improvement, etc.,), but as a single litmus test determining the future of the student and school.

At best, tests results will reflect educational inputs. The government knows that working class and minority students, who attend underfunded, overcrowded and outdated schools, will not perform well on the culturally-biased standardized tests. Standardized tests are, in effect, rigged to set students and schools up for failure and to blame the students, teachers and parents for "poor performance."

Next, instead of increasing investment where it is needed most, the government punishes working class and minority students, and their communities, by further cutting funding and/or privatizing the schools. Under the NCLB law, many school districts have been forced to privatize tutoring services and many schools are already being privatized under the pressure of this law. In addition, standardized tests are used to further deprive working class students of the right to a modern education by tracking them into vocational and military schools and reserving better educational opportunities for a small percentage of the population.

The emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests is not only punishing working class and minority students and schools, it is also being used to undermine the curriculum. The government, school administrators and principals are so focussed on test scores, that teachers are told to "teach to the test." Students who are sure to pass the test are often ignored as are students who are considered unlikely to pass. Creative assignments, term projects, interdisciplinary studies are frowned upon. Courses other than English and Math are being cut back. A 2006 study by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) showed that 71% of the country's 15,000 school districts have cut back on instructional time in various subjects in order to spend more time prepping students for standardized tests. The CEP reports that one-third of the school districts have cut back on social studies; 29% have cut science courses and 22% have cut music and art instruction.

In sum, the standardized testing "craze" is a fraud from start to finish. Rather than being used as a means to diagnose problems and improve education, the government and educational authorities are using standardized tests to blame and punish working class and minority students and to pave the way for the further privatization of the public schools.

The path for really improving educational performance begins with the government properly funding the public schools, guarantying equal funding and equal opportunities for schools in working class and minority areas, dramatically lowering class size, providing a modern, all-sided curriculum, funding universal pre-school, etc. The government must be made to fulfill its responsibilities to the public schools.