A Teacher Explains Why Standardized Testing Is Ineffective

Did you know it’s not uncommon for kindergartners to take standardized tests? By the time your child is a 5th grader, he or she has been testing at school for 6 years. Has this made school results any better? Is your child smarter because of standardized testing? 99.9% of teachers will tell you no!

Standardized testing is ineffective because there are too many variables for the data to be valid and there isn’t consensus on the purpose for testing. Environment, student backgrounds, teacher effectiveness, and test design all affect results, making it impossible to accurately evaluate them.

Standardized testing began with good intentions (this is up for debate, of course!), but the reasoning, execution, and conclusions are flawed. Let’s look further.

What is Standardized Testing

According to Edglossary.org Standardized testing is defined as testing that is given in a predetermined, consistent manner. All students answer similarly designed questions using a bank of responses (multiple choice, traditionally).

Generally, students take standardized tests at least one period of time per year. It is not uncommon for students to take standardized tests a couple of times per year. Typically, though, ‘state standardized testing’ occurs at the end of each grade level.

Because testing occurs at the end of each school year, many students have started aligning it with the power to pass or fail students. As a teacher, I have been asked every year by students that if they don’t pass the test, will they be held back.

History of Standardized Testing

Most would be surprised to know, according to NEA.org standardized tests were being designed as early as the 1900s! By 1926, the College Board gave the first SAT. And in 1929 Iowa was the first to initiate statewide standard testing for its high school students. By the 1930s, other states were using Iowa’s tests.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act opened up this type of testing push to middle and elementary levels as well. As stated by Edweek.org, by the time the Bush Administration passed the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, standardized testing was really already in full swing across the country, only now teacher evaluations, and possibly tenure and job salary, were tied to standardized testing.

Types of Standardized Testing

There are several forms of standardized testing. Originally these tests were taken on paper with pencil, as students bubbled in responses. Then they were sent off to test makers for scoring.

Now, however, computers or other forms of technology are used, speeding up the process and theoretically enhancing test questions with drag and drop or point and click options, and so on. These technological advancements supposedly allow test makers to create more equitable test questions.

From elementary to high school, most students take subject based tests like reading, math, state history, and science. Even though tests are taken at the end of the school year for most, the high stakes attached to standardized testing means school systems devote a lot of the school year to preparing students with mock tests, designed to judge how students will do and provide test-taking practice before the ‘real deal’ comes along.

Most high schoolers will also take College entrance type standardized tests starting their sophomore year. The PSAT, SAT, and ACT are common, testing math and verbal aptitudes, and often writing skills.

Again, the high stakes involved cause many parents to pay for students to take prep courses or at the least, parents purchase preparatory material (see my recommendation for the test prep book we used for our adult students here at Amazon), in order to help students achieve their highest possible scores.

Rationale for Standardized Testing

There are many reasons given for the purpose of standardized testing. To prepare students for the future, improve curriculum, and to ensure core skills are some of the reasons mentioned in the video below by John Barker, the Chief Accountability Officer of Chicago Public Schools.

However, two most often cited reasons (also mentioned in the video) are:

  • teacher accountability
  • to evaluate student learning.

As a public school teacher for many years, across three states, from the elementary level to high school, I can attest that these are the reasons at the forefront of education at the ground level in our schools!

Teacher Accountability

With the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001, standardized testing was attached to teacher accountability. From then on, test scores have been used to judge teacher effectiveness. If a class did well on the particular standardized test, then the teacher was determined ‘effective’. If the opposite occurred, then the teacher was labeled ‘ineffective.’

From 2001 on, schools were assigned a passing percentage level as a goal on a gradient scale, with the expectation that by 2015, all 100% of students would score at the proficient level on the state standardized test (federally-approved test, that is!). In theory this sounds reasonable, but in practice, it is nearly, if not downright, impossible because all students aren’t the same (and so far, has been impossible because no school has had 100% of students score proficient!).

There are students with special needs such as students with intellectual disabilities and those who are English language learners, new to the country and come to school with limited to no English understanding, for example, who cannot pass at proficient, no matter how hard they or their teachers try!

Can you imagine taking a test in another language and being expected to pass it as an adult, let alone as a child? Can you imagine being a 5th grade student with an intellectual disability reading at Pre-K level (meaning they know their letters) but being expected to pass the 5th grade math, reading, and science standardized tests?

Then there are other situations that make it unimaginable for them to pass. There are students from underserved socioeconomic backgrounds who missed a lot of school due to circumstances not always in their control. There are students from homes without supervision. How can they be expected to pass standardized tests when they are hungry, sleepy, cold, and missing school?

And the list goes on and on. Yet policy makers (and test companies with lobbyists) want to say teachers are not effective and need to be monitored, as if that wasn’t happening at the school and district level.

Thus, standardized testing came into play as a method to raise teacher accountability.

Monitor Student Progress

Then, there is the oft-given reason that standardized testing helps us monitor student progress. Again, in theory, this makes sense. Students take tests and we can judge if they have learned the material or not. Right?

No, this is not the case at all! Instead, it does not monitor student progress.

Standardized tests are different year to year from grade level to grade level. It doesn’t show us how much a student has improved from the beginning of one grade level to the beginning of another because each test is ‘testing’ something else.

It only lets us know if a student is proficient (or not) on that one test (at that time, as well!).

Some people like to use the results from year to year to judge instruction in the guise of monitoring student cohorts. For example, if 88% of a group of 5th graders score proficient in 2002 and 86% of a group of 5th graders score proficient in 2003, schools will often say the instruction (i.e. teacher) was less effective in 2003.

However, it could be that the 2003 group came in at a lower ability level than the 2002 group. These students are different apples! Progress isn’t being monitored in this case at all.

Some data analysts (e.g. politicians, superintendents, principals…) have looked at one group and followed them for several years, comparing their standardized test scores, thinking this is more reliable and thus, valid data.

Again, progress isn’t being monitored here because the material is different year to year. There are some years when totally new skills are being taught (a low ‘score’ year for standardized testing) and other years when old material is expounded upon, nothing new just MORE depth and breadth (a higher score year for standardized testing).

It is wrong to compare these scores even if the group of students stay the same because of the other variables involved!

What it Actually Tests

Teachers overwhelmingly disapprove of tests, especially for our younger children. Why are teachers upset by tests? Is it just because of the connection to teacher evaluations? Let’s look at what standardized testing actually tests, rather than what they are intended to test (subject matter proficiency). And then you might better understand why most teachers are against them.

Reading Tests

You would think that math tests would test math skills, correct? That is not the case because math tests aren’t simply computational problems. Instead a major portion of math standardized tests are word-based problems. This means reading skill is also included!

The amount of language is proportionate to the grade level too, so the higher the grade level, the amount and rigor of the language involved is increased. Students who struggle for one reason or another in reading, will also struggle on the math test, naturally.

Reading ability is also connected to other subject-matter tests such as science and history. Now some states will try to address this by permitting testing accommodations for those who qualify based on need such as those with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), our special education students, and ELLs, our English language learners.

Yet allowing more time on a test (a testing accommodation) doesn’t really create equitable testing situations, does it? Some may even qualify to have the test read to them in order to try to create a valid testing situation.

But just because the test is read to an English language learner, doesn’t mean they understand the questions, does it? If someone reads to me 50 questions in German, it doesn’t mean I now understand German, does it? And certainly, it doesn’t mean I can now pass the German test at proficiency, either!

Socioeconomic Backgrounds

In a study conducted by Researchgate.net, students from wealthier families score better on standardized tests. They are more likely to have tutors and experiences that are connected to, aligned with, or support that taking of standardized tests.

They are more likely to attend k12 schools that have better educational access and resources, including technology, quality materials, and even basics such as good lighting than poorer schools, whether they attend public or private systems.

In general, students with college-educated parents do better on standardized tests. They are more likely to have expanded vocabulary at an early age and raised in homes full of literature.

Because two-parent, in tact homes are more likely to not struggle with money (or housing, food, etc), students from these homes do better on standardized tests. If students aren’t hungry, sleepy, or stressed because of lack of basic needs, they are more likely to score better on standardized tests than students taking the same tests who are struggling for basic needs.

Those in sub-groups (special education students, minorities, language learners) all score lower than those not included in sub-groups. Doesn’t this make sense?

Therefore, it is apparent that socioeconomically disadvantaged students score lower than others. It is not that standardized tests are designed to discriminate. It is just that they simply do because of these other variables.

Child Maturity

Students who are immature aren’t going to do as well as mature students. As stated in an article published in Education Week, younger students first taking tests were found to struggle with attention, sitting still for longer periods of time, and stamina to endure standardized testing situations.

The fact that testing younger students has also correlated with reduced recess certainly isn’t helpful either!

Students who are older but emotionally immature also struggle with testing stamina. They find it difficult to sit still, to read ‘boring’ passages, to check their work, to not skip questions, and so on. They also get hungry sooner and that distracts them.

Emotionally immature students play around during tests and distract others as well. All of this affects testing outcomes.

It is not always the case that an immature student fails to meet proficiency because they don’t understand the material. Often it is that they disregarded the importance of the test, rushed to finish, and thus scored poorly. It is unfair to judge teacher efficacy and student progress based on this kind of scenario.

Alternatives to Standardized Testing

If standardized testing is done away with, what can be used effectively instead? This is the question many ask. Well, what was used prior to 2001? Prior to 1965, even?

Do we think that only quality education occurred since then? Judging by the disparaging remarks allocated to today’s educational system, I don’t think most would say this, do you?

That being the case, then, let’s look at some alternatives to standardized testing.

Progress Reports

Progress reports are sometimes used interchangeably with report cards. These are probably familiar to most all parents, who also received them when in school.

Progress reports are written records sent to parents/guardians detailing their child’s ‘progress’ or performance in relation to subject understanding (skills and standards). Some schools might use ‘progress report’ as an unofficial heads up or notice to parents while report cards are official records on the student’s school file.

Regardless, progress reports are a useful tool to inform parents and to provide information of their child’s school work. It’s not one score based on one time of taking a standardized test. Progress reports can take into account multiple measurements over a period of time, making them a much more accurate representation of student learning.

Thus, progress reports are a good alternative to use in lieu of standardized testing.

Authentic Assessments

Authentic assessments are often called performance-based or project-based assessments. They are designed to be relevant and more real-world aligned.

Examples of authentic assessments are presentations, portfolios, recitals, and models. Authentic assessments allow students to truly show their learning, to put their learning into a real-life example/sample/practice.

Many schools have turned (or returned) to authentic, project-based learning along with state-mandated standardized testing to allow students more options to showing what they know.

As well, many times special education students use authentic assessments in the form of portfolios instead of standardized testing. It just has to be included in their IEP prior to the standardized testing window.

As homeschool parents, we’ve used authentic assessments with our children for years, starting at the preschool age. Here’s a clip of one of our children, presenting their art work.

Just Say No to Standardized Testing

Parents may not be aware but they have control over whether or not their child is subjected to standardized testing. Even though most parents are starting to recoil from testing, as a former public school teacher, I have yet to have one parent choose for their child to forego testing.

Opting Out-When Kids are Too Young

Parents, you can say no! There is no penalty for your child to opt out of standardized testing. Parents must inform their children’s school or teacher that they wish for their child to abstain; no one will ask you otherwise.

Your child cannot be intimidated, threatened, coerced, or punished for choosing not to participate in standardized testing. Schools cannot fail your child for not testing.

Opting out is especially beneficial at the primary grades since testing can be stressful, takes a long time, and tends to replace recess and ‘specialized’ classes like art and music. As well, if your child doesn’t perform well, it could be an early start to a negative label that will follow your child throughout his or her education.

When you opt out, you don’t even have to give a reason. BUT you must let your school know. If you do not, the school will assume your child is testing.

Other Schooling

If you don’t want your child to participate in standardized testing and you fear repercussions from opting out, or don’t want your child’s instructional experiences to be geared around standardizing testing (a la ‘teaching to the test’ situations), then you might like to choose alternative schooling.

Private schools aren’t held to the same regulations as public schools. There are many private schools that do not use state-mandated, standardized tests. They utilize other forms of assessments.

Likewise, homeschooling is often not regulated to using standardized tests. As homeschooling parents, we have used standardized tests sometimes; and other years, we haven’t. You will need to be aware of your state’s requirements for home instruction, but this very well may be a suitable alternative to traditional public schooling for your child.


Whether you choose to opt out, enroll your child in private school, or homeschool your child, you can simply postpone standardized testing until later for your child.

Just because you opt out in 3rd grade, doesn’t mean you have to have your child participate in 4th grade. You can decide year to year what’s best for your child.

You may decide to homeschool your child but only use standardized tests every other year. Again, look into your state’s requirements for homeschooling and make an informed decision.

As well, most students will need to take college entrance exams such as SAT. If higher education is a consideration for your child, then you may decide high school is the time for your child to participate in standardized testing.

Standardized Testing Wrap Up

Obviously, there is a lot to consider when thinking about standardized testing effectiveness. Let’s look back…

  • Standardized testing is intended to create a standard, consistent testing format, but as we now know, that is quite difficult, if not impossible to do.
  • Standardized testing has a much longer history than most people are aware.
  • Standardized testing is unfair and invalid because of the lack of control of variables.
  • Standardized testing assess things other than intended (content knowledge and understanding). Reading ability (or lack thereof), socioeconomic background, and child maturity are all factors that effect the outcome of student performance.
  • Plenty of alternatives exist that may be more suitable than standardized tests such as authentic assessments and progress reports.
  • Parents may choose to opt out or postpone standardized testing for their child; or parents may select private schooling or homeschooling, where standardized testing is not mandated.

As a teacher with over 20 years experience, I urge you to rethink your child’s participation in standardized testing and don’t be afraid to consider other options.

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