EXPLAINED: What Are Standardized Tests and Why Do We Need Them?

Jun 8, 2021 12:00:00 AM


EXPLAINED: What Are Standardized Tests and Why Do We Need Them?

Few education topics get parents, teachers, and school leaders more riled up than discussions about using results from student tests to measure the quality of state education systems, districts, schools, and sometimes even teachers. But what exactly are standardized tests, what are they used for, and why are there so many of them? 

What makes a test “standardized”?

A test is standardized when all the students taking the test have to respond to the same set of carefully selected questions. This allows people who look at the results to make comparisons among groups of students. Questions on these tests tend to be multiple choice or true-false because that raises the chances that results are fair and objective, with less possibility for bias or favoritism in scoring the answers. 

The process of creating a standardized test and interpreting the results requires a lot of different expertise in curriculum, child development, cultural and linguistic differences, statistics and a field of study called psychometrics.

Why do students have to take so many tests?

When you think about it, standardized tests are part of our lives and have been for a long time. When you take a baby to a doctor, they assess the baby’s health by using a “standardized” checklist: How does the baby’s weight compare with others the same age and are they meeting developmental milestones? When you apply for a driver’s license, your state motor vehicle bureau requires you to take a standardized test to see if you know the rules of the road. When you apply for citizenship, you take a standardized test to see if you understand the basics of American governance. 

Likewise, standardized tests are extremely useful for educators and their institutions to gauge progress and meet the needs of students. For instance, half of U.S. states require a kindergarten readiness test. When students apply to college, they usually take the ACT or the SAT (although some colleges are now dropping this requirement in the interest of making admissions more equitable). If you want to go to law school, you take the LSAT. If you want to go to medical school you take the MCAT. There’s even a test called PISA used by 79 countries that allows comparisons between national education systems. (In 2018, the U.S. ranked 13th in reading and 36th in math.)

However, there can be too much of a good thing—including too many tests. That’s because the assessments your child takes over the school year serve different purposes. For instance, a teacher might give a social studies test to see if students have absorbed the material he’s taught in that unit; this allows him to check if there’s a need for review. A principal might decide to test all the students in a grade if there’s been a pattern of lower proficiency in math; this allows her to ensure the instructional materials are working or if teachers need additional training. Some school districts use standardized diagnostic tests several times a year to drill down on what individual students are learning, like NWEA’s MAP tests or Curriculum Associates’ iReady tests. Also, federal law requires states to test students in grades 3-8 once a year in reading and math, plus once in high school. 

Why is the federal government involved in standardized tests?

While America has some wonderful schools, we’ve struggled for a long time to raise achievement levels. In 1983 a bipartisan group of educators and officials wrote a report called “A Nation at Risk” that remarked, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Not much has changed. Tom Loveless, an education expert, says, “What surprises me is how stable U.S. performance is [on PISA]. The scores have always been mediocre.”

Another standardized test given to representative groups of students (called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the “Nation’s Report Card”) finds that two-thirds of children are not proficient readers.

America’s lagging status behind other first-world countries prompted the federal government to start mandating standardized tests in order to improve teaching and learning. A 1965 law called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which tied extra funding for disadvantaged students to state compliance, was reauthorized in 2003 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). For states to be eligible for that extra federal funding, they had to annually assess student learning through standardized tests (grades 3-8 and once in high school). They also had to report out test results of historically-neglected groups, like students with disabilities, English-language learners, and low-income children. Each group—as well as schools, districts, and states—was supposed to meet a benchmark called “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP.

Why are standardized tests so controversial?

They didn’t used to be controversial! But they became so when the federal government got involved and American educators and leaders became concerned about the college and career-readiness of high school graduates.

Many point to No Child Left Behind as the moment that standardized tests became controversial. Sometimes transparency is painful—those test results quickly showed enormous gaps in proficiency between students of color and their white peers, for instance. 

In response, we started taking student achievement—and the gaps in achievement between rich and poor kids, Black and white kids–more seriously. Instead of just filing results away, states began using the test results to evaluate the quality of schools, districts, state departments of education, and even teachers. This led to a series of questions:

  • Why is this school turning out kids who do poorly in math while this other school’s students are math wizards?
  • Are the textbooks at fault?
  • Is it the principal?
  • Is one school supporting teachers better than the other school?
  • Does one school have more homeless students or more students with disabilities or more English-language learners?

In some cases, teachers and administrators felt unfairly attacked. Parents sometimes were unhappily surprised to see that their children weren’t learning as much as they thought. There can be a perception—sometimes true—that standardized tests are used to unfairly punish beloved teachers or administrators, or that the test results are denying students coveted opportunities, like admission to specialized schools or programs.

An example of the overly-intrusive nature of NCLB was the absurdly ambitious goal of 100% proficiency by the 2013-2014 school year. In response, states lowered standards and made tests easier to pass so they would still receive federal funding. Additionally, NCLB placed unrealistic demands on schools serving high-needs communities, and led to what many educators described as a toxic culture of “drill and kill” test-prep that took much of the joy out of school and learning. 

For these reasons and more, in 2015 the law was reauthorized again, and No Child Left Behind became the Every Student Succeeds Act, which pared back the federal role by removing annual benchmarks and adding flexibility for states to decide how to hold themselves accountable. 

But states still have to share individual district and school test results with the public in order to shine a light on which schools are doing right by students and which are falling short. With this information, the hope is that we can raise achievement levels across the country, especially for historically underserved students.

Are standardized tests racist?

America is beset by structural inequities and one of the most dangerous and pervasive inequities is racism, which leaks into all aspects of life, from poorly maintained homes to sub-par medical care to food insecurity to fewer resources for schools that serve students of color. Standardized tests are no different: for example, a century ago an American psychologist named Lewis Terman erroneously and offensively claimed that I.Q. tests showed that African Americans, Spanish-Indian, and Mexican people were not as intelligent as white people. 

There are other ways tests can be biased. There was a famous example in the 1990s when an SAT question asked for the best analogy between “runner” and “marathon.” The answer was “oarsman” and “regatta,” vocabulary that might only be familiar to wealthy teenagers. This was a prime example of socio-economic bias.

But standardized tests can also be a way to overcome inherent bias. When teacher perceptions are the sole criteria for student access into gifted and talented programs, Black and brown students can be overlooked. Research shows that when standardized testing is used instead, more students of color are selected for accelerated learning. 

Meanwhile, testing companies have initiated programs to create tests and learning materials that are culturally, racially, and socio-economically sensitive. For example, in 2021, Pearson, a major textbook publisher and standardized testing vendor, published editorial guidelines addressing race, ethnicity, equity and inclusion.

Standardized tests can indeed perpetuate racial inequity and system racial bias. Yet without them, we’re at the mercy of subjective assessments. That’s why the National Urban League led a coalition of civil rights, social justice, disability rights, and education advocacy groups to urge U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to require states to maintain their schedules of standardized testing during the coronavirus pandemic. They wrote,

To understand the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that this pandemic does not undermine the futures of students across the country, we must collect accurate, objective, and comparable data that speaks to the quality of education in this moment, including data from statewide assessments.

What do standardized tests have to do with civil rights?

Civil rights has long focused on issues of equity and equality. In the world of education, equity means there are systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance for success, regardless of their family income or the color of their skin. 

There are many ways to see that these aspirations remain unrealized. But standardized test results are one of the clearest and most compelling indicators that civil rights advocates can use to show the glaring inequities in our current education system.

One example: A report by brightbeam found that in San Francisco, 70% of white students are proficient in math, compared to only 12% of Black students, a 58-point gap. This pattern—white students vastly outperforming Black students—is rampant in many parts of the country and underscores America’s challenge of raising achievement and infusing equity into our schools.

If you want to see the gaps in how your state and/or city is serving students of different races, visit Why Proficiency Matters, an easy online tool for revealing racial proficiency gaps (sometimes called “achievement gaps”).

In order to narrow these vast disparities we need standardized assessments. They provide a clear way to measure how well our school systems serve kids most at risk. The information we get from those tests gives states and school districts the data they need to create more equitable systems. 

This practice is right in line with the goals of the civil rights movement: to give all students equal educational opportunities and protection under the law, regardless of race or religion or income level. That’s why everyone from this teacher in Kentucky to Michelle Obama to Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump call education the most important civil rights issue of our time.

Why does the federal government want us to test every child? Can't we just test a sample of kids to see how a school district is doing?

We already do that through the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” which is given every other year to a sample of students in each state. It’s very useful! But kids not tested by NAEP can fall through the cracks and NAEP doesn’t give us the detailed information on an individual student’s proficiency available from more focused and inclusive tests. 

Importantly, NAEP has no consequences for poor performance. It is meant to be a dipstick on the overall academic health of our country, state by state. This ensures that the results are genuine and comparable. 

So how do we make sure states and districts actually work to improve the education they provide for underserved students? That’s where the federal government comes in. After all, our current national education law is called the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” not the “Some Students Succeed Act.” According to this law, if a state has too many students who aren’t meeting expectations in math or reading, then the federal government requires that state to identify districts, schools, and particular groups of students who need more support. 

If states only tested a portion of kids, there would be no reliable way to identify which schools and districts need to improve. More importantly, there would be no reliable way to identify which marginalized groups of students weren’t getting the level of support and instruction they required to thrive. That’s why each state must set ambitious goals for students to grow academically—even those who are farthest behind—and report out the progress made towards those results, broken down by race, income, and disability.

And how are these schools or districts or groups of students identified? Through standardized tests. Sure, no test is perfect. But when looking at a huge system, you can only see general trends. It’s easy to say, “all our kids are fine,” even when some of them aren’t. 

Can we really trust these tests to give an accurate measurement of student learning?

No single test can measure a single student’s proficiency in math and reading. That’s never been the claim, and is why we don’t use state standardized assessments for your child’s report card grades, for instance. But these tests can look at different groups of students within a school and help school leaders learn which students are struggling or whether instructional changes need to be made. 

In the education policy world, this idea of requiring schools to make improvements when the standardized testing data shows they are underperforming is called “accountability.” And it is a vital component to civil rights. We must recognize the problem and then take action, whether you’re speaking of Rosa Parks sitting in the whites-only section of the bus or education activists in Nashville who are addressing a literacy crisis where seven out of ten third graders can’t read at grade level.

Let’s say your child’s elementary school gives all fifth graders the state reading test and discovers that this group is performing more poorly than last year’s fifth graders. Is that because there are more students this year with learning disabilities? Were there too many snow days? Did the district just implement a new reading program that perhaps is slowing achievement down? Are teachers not receiving as much guidance as they had in previous years? Did the school raise class sizes last year so that students aren’t getting more attention? 

Results culled from standardized tests can narrow down the reasons and, thus, point educators towards the right solutions. Without the test, teachers and parents wouldn’t know there was a problem. If you can’t recognize a problem, you can’t solve it. 

As Katrina Miller of Educational Partnerships explains,

We must overcome the fear of data in education. Having as much robust data as possible only helps us better understand student needs. Doctors order full bloodwork for a check-up so they have a picture of how the whole human system is working. We need this same mindset in education.

I trust my child’s teacher to know when my kid is having problems. Why stress him out with a test?

Our teachers definitely have great intuition about student progress. But teachers have to work within a much larger system that they can’t control. It’s really hard to get big institutions—like school districts or even state education departments—to make changes, especially when those same institutions have been under-serving the same groups of children for generations. Changing those systems requires the hard statistical evidence provided by standardized tests. 

It takes hard work to improve systems. And even though your child may be fine, there’s a lot riding on our national efforts to raise the levels of academic achievement for students who have long been failed by our schools.

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on standardized testing?

Many people agree that forcing kids to take tests during a plague-ridden year would be pointless and even cruel. Indeed, early in the pandemic, the Trump administration allowed states to waive all spring standardized tests for 2020. 

The following year, many expected the Biden Administration to do the same thing, since large numbers of students were still learning remotely and schools had struggled all year to keep pace with learning. However, the Biden administration heeded the concerns of civil rights and educational justice groups, requiring that states continue testing, precisely because it was such a challenging year and so many children would have fallen behind. 

However, states received tremendous flexibility in how and who they tested in 2021, so in truth, we are losing two years of data. This no doubt produces huge obstacles for districts that seek to diagnose the effectiveness of their schools and curricula, and removes a critical tool from the advocacy toolbelt of the civil rights sector.

What are the opportunities for activism?

  • UNDERSTAND the tests kids are taking and why.

Become an informed consumer. Information is power. In order to advocate effectively, you must understand the purpose of particular tests and how your school will use the results. Is it to drive instruction? Is it to measure state trends? Is it to fulfill federal regulations? 

Under the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan, states will divide up $125 billion for K-12 schools to help students catch up after a year of school closures. One of the strings attached is your state has to come up with a plan to assess student progress during this pandemic year. No hiding from learning loss! We need the data in order to create plans that will address the crisis. So go to school board meetings and write or call your legislators, demanding that your state’s assessment plan for 2021—whether it be using substitute tests, delaying the usual state tests, or using shortened versions of tests—be implemented with integrity, a focus on serving students and families, and a fearless quest for accurate information.

  • SHARE the message that standardized testing helps uphold civil rights.

Even if you are unconcerned about your own child’s progress, remember that without standardized testing we wouldn’t be able to measure the proficiency gaps that highlight vast inequities within our public education system. Our schools are failing to justly serve large groups of children; in this sense, supporting standardized testing is part of the work of ensuring child justice. Undertake initiatives to raise your community’s comfort level with testing and their understanding of its powerful role in promoting educational equity.

  • PUSH your state, district or school to make standardized testing better. 

Current standardized tests, while vital for improving learning gaps, are stuck in the Stone Age. In order to minimize the time and money spent on assessments, state education systems need to invest in innovating our testing infrastructure. The technology is there to automatically grade essay questions but we don’t use it. The technology is there to customize test questions to individual students’ level of proficiency but we don’t use it. The technology is there to turn around test results within 24 hours but we don’t use it.

Activists can demand their state leaders invest in innovation to make tests less stressful and more useful for students, teachers, parents, schools and states.

Ed Post Staff

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