Standardized testing remains an object of continued professional criticism. Much has been written and said about the flaws and drawbacks in standardized tests. This paper provides a new insight into the nature of standardized tests. A definition and description of standardized testing is provided. How and where standardized tests are administered is discussed. The rationale behind standardized testing and its pros and cons are evaluated. The effects and validity of standardized testing are described.
Standardized tests remain a continued object of professional criticism. Much has been written and said about the flaws and drawbacks in standardized tests. Standardized testing is believed to place excess pressure on teachers and students and produce wrong assessment outcomes. As a result, minority students and gifted learners are left beyond the boundaries of standardized testing and cannot continue their learning path. In reality, the nature of standardized testing is not as bad as it seems. Standardized tests offer considerable benefits to instructional designers and learners. The objectivity, uniformity and universality, broad coverage, and cost-effectiveness of standardized testing cannot be ignored. It comes as no surprise that, despite open criticism, standardized tests have proved to be the central method of knowledge assessment in the American system of schooling. Therefore, standardized testing does have the right to exist, but only to the extent that it is valid, properly administered, open, and constantly updated to reflect the changing needs of students in the United States.
Standardized Tests: Defining and Explaining
Standardized testing has become a buzzword in contemporary education research. Nevertheless, few, if any, education professionals can define and explain its meaning. Educators and instructional designers accuse standardized tests for being biased and unfair (Phelps, 2005). This, however, is against the very nature of standardized testing since the latter was designed to promote fairness and justice in learning. Standardized tests are those whose content “is equivalent across administrators and that the conditions under which the test is administered are the same for all test takers” (Phelps, 2005, p.113). In other words, standardized tests are intended to provide a level playing field, where all learners pass one and the same test in the same testing conditions (Phelps, 2005). From this definition comes a simple conclusion: “standardized” does not mean “bad”. In learning assessment, standardization is essentially about ensuring that all students are provided with the same learning content and are evaluated within the same learning conditions. Uniformity, not unfairness or bias, is at the heart of the standardized testing philosophy. Standardized testing is intended to guarantee objectivity and unbiased attitudes toward learners.
The standardized testing philosophy is based on the scientific method. Simply put, in standardized testing, the conditions of learning and testing are standardized. Consequentially, any variations across test results are assumed to be due to the differences in learners’ knowledge and understanding of the study material (Phelps, 2005). A standardized test is created according to the test specifications developed by education professionals and authorities. In standardized testing, scoring procedures are the same for all learners. All tests are qualitatively and statistically equivalent (Phelps, 2005). It would be correct to say that standardization in testing is inseparable from fairness.
It should be noted that standardized tests are not limited to multiple-choice formats. Moreover, almost all tests currently available to educators can be successfully standardized. Unfortunately, a belief persists that standardized testing is used to measure only low-level skills (Phelps, 2010). This is one of the greatest misconceptions about standardized tests that greatly affect public perceptions of standardization in American schooling. In light of these misunderstandings, the importance of this research cannot be denied. Professional educators and the public must understand how and why standardized tests are administered in U.S. schools.
How and Where Are Standardized Tests Administered?
Standardized tests are designed specifically to pursue uniformity and universality in the learning assessment process. Therefore, the manner in which standardized tests are administered is also standardized (Holbrook & Koenig, 2000). All administration procedures relating to standardized tests should be carried out consistently and in ways required by the testing administration guidelines (Holbrook & Koenig, 2000). The specific administration procedures vary, depending on the nature of a particular test. More often than not, standardized assessment instruments are administered to large audiences with similar educational backgrounds (for example, upon the completion of the course or subject), and the results obtained during standardized tests are then compared to the expected results (Holbrook & Koenig, 2000). This being said, standardized tests are rightly considered as a reliable formal instrument of assessing knowledge in large audiences. Meanwhile, non-standardized tests can be administered in audiences where following specific guidelines is extremely problematic, such as visually impaired students.
Standardized tests are administered, scored, and interpreted according to specific norms and expectations. Most schools administer standardized tests during falls and springs, to assess changes in student achievement (Roe & Smith, 2011). Most standardized tests exemplify a collection of several tests affecting more than subject, and they are sometimes administered in the course of more than one day (Roe & Smith, 2011). Once completed, these tests are sent to the publisher for scoring and interpreting. The results are then returned to the school (Roe & Smith, 2011). Today, many standardized tests are computer-mediated, which makes the learning assessment process much easier and faster. With the introduction of computer systems in schools, the use of standardized testing is becoming more common. The sustained popularity of standardized tests in American schools is further justified by the broad pursuit of transparency and accountability in American education (Roe & Smith, 2011).
Why use standardized tests? This is one of the most common questions asked by teachers in American schools. Two official reasons justify the implementation of standardized tests in schools and tests in general. First, by administering standardized tests among learners, schools can prevent low-performing students from getting a diploma (Brantlinger, 2006). Standardized testing is used by schools to guarantee that all students who successfully graduate and get a diploma possess minimal basic and literacy skills to continue education and pursue a good career (Brantlinger, 2006). With the help of standardized tests, a diploma turns into a reliable measure of students’ abilities and learning potentials. With standardized tests, a diploma is a document that conveys valid information about school graduates’ competencies (Brantlinger, 2006).
Second, standardized testing represents an important incentive for better learning and greater achievement among students. Because students who fail standardized tests may not get their diploma on time, they should be willing to work harder towards the desired learning outcomes (Brantlinger, 2006). “A discourse of societal decline purports that some people do not pull their weight, hence burden others and pull society down” (Brantlinger, 2006, p.203). As such, a standardized test is a relevant and stringent measure for dealing with lazy students, inattentive parents, unprofessional teachers, and similar societal evils. These assumptions are equally valid for all types of testing, including non-standardized types. Testing in general and standardized testing, in particular, should serve a warning sign for underachieving students and a force that motivates them to attend school. Standardized tests are designed to motivate students to improve their grades (Brantlinger, 2006). To a large extent, the results of standardized tests serve an important public measure of students’ competences. They are also an important ingredient of students’ public image. Unfortunately, many of these beliefs are merely beliefs. The ‘should’ component of these assumptions makes them extremely uncertain. Even if standardized tests should motivate students to learn better, that does not mean that they are truly motivational. Most probably, standardized tests are used simply because they are inexpensive, socially accepted, and relatively quick to implement. They fit perfectly well into the current system of social accountability in American schooling. However, again, that tests are standardized does not imply that they are inherently bad. Everything and everyone has good and bad features. This being said, the pros and cons of standardized testing should be discussed in more detail.
Standardized Tests: Pros and Cons
The pros and cons of standardized testing have been described in abundance. In most cases, standardized tests are claimed to damage the system of education and provide little guidance in teacher and educators’ judgments about student achievement. However, a standardized test is used to ensure that high school graduates have knowledge and skills required to enter college (Bettivia, 2010). Standardized tests are used to evaluate student knowledge in core disciplines. Proficiency in these disciplines is necessary for college (Bettivia, 2010). Students who do not pass standardized tests are not ready to enter college. This is how standardized testing can anticipate and reduce college dropout rates.
A standardized test is a good instrument of assessment that does not divide students by their socioeconomic status. In standardized testing, all students are equal, irrespective of their ethnic, social, or cultural backgrounds (Bettivia, 2010). Therefore, students who want to pass the exam and get their diploma on time should rely only on themselves. In this sense, standardized testing also encourages the development and use of standard learning expectations across all educational facilities (Bettivia, 2010). Differences in learning standards and expectations often become a serious barrier to student development and learning. In addition, teaching methods may differ greatly across schools. With standardized testing, schools have no other choice but to adjust their teaching methods to meet the requirements of standardized tests. Consequentially, with standardized testing, teaching methods also become consistent and uniform.
As previously mentioned, standardized tests have the potential to motivate better achievement among school learners. The fact is that, when a learner must pass a test, he (she) is more likely to learn the material needed to accomplish this goal (Bettivia, 2010). Like many other tests, standardized tests can motivate students to develop better critical thinking skills and engage in real learning (Bettivia, 2010). Today, many developed countries use standardized testing models. Standardized testing has proved to be an effective way to produce educated and informed citizenry and more professional workforce (Bettivia, 2010). Given the efficiency problems affecting the U.S. system of schooling, standardized testing can provide the groundwork for making relevant comparisons across schools, identify possible gaps in teaching and learning, and develop a uniform set of criteria for baseline quality in U.S. education.
Despite these benefits, standardized testing often becomes an object of severe criticism. Alfred Kohn is, probably, the most popular opponent of standardized testing in American schools. In Kohn’s (2000) words, standardized testing resembles a monster from the old horror movies, and it threatens to swallow American schools. Kohn (2000) believes that tests should not be used to deny students their diploma or decide how limited school resources are to be allocated. Contrary to what Bettivia (2010) writes, Kohn claims that few developed countries administer formal exams to their students before they reach their sixteenth birthday. Kohn (2000) claims that in the American system of education, students are being tested at a scale and to an extent that is both unprecedented for the developed world and unparalleled anywhere else internationally. Whether or not Kohn (2000) is objective in his claims is difficult to define. Nevertheless, it is clear that standardized tests do have considerable weaknesses.
To begin with, standardized tests are claimed to measure students’ preparedness to enter college (Bettivia, 2010). However, as the costs of higher education continue to increase, fewer students are willing to pursue higher education. With fewer students going to college, the need for standardized testing reduces. If students want to participate in skilled trade rather than get a college degree, they should have the right to do so (Bettivia, 2010). Unfortunately, failure to pass a standardized test may discourage students from pursuing a good career or continuing their education in colleges or universities. Students who do not pass a standardized test may be discouraged to perform better in college and, consequentially, will face elevated risks of college dropouts.
Another problem is whether or not American schools can operate up to the standards set by standardized tests. That many students fail to pass standardized exams does not always mean that these students have no knowledge or skills to pursue continued education. Present-day schooling has many flaws. Very often, school curricula do not provide the amount of learning material needed by students to pass standardized tests (Bettivia, 2010). Failure to pass a standardized test may indicate the presence of a broader school curriculum problem, and the main task is not to expose children to more tests but to review and correct the existing instructional and teaching problems.
Finally, when proponents of standardized tests claim that other countries of the developed world have been using standardized testing for years, they seem to forget that the goals pursued by other educational systems differ greatly from those set for American students. In many developed countries, the systems of schooling are organized around core subjects that are directly related to children’s future careers (Bettivia, 2010). In the United Kingdom, France or South Korea, school children and students in higher educational facilities learn the knowledge and skills they will need to excel in the profession of their choice. By contrast, in the United States, school education relies on the premise that children must appreciate all fields of knowledge before they choose one or several major interests (Bettivia, 2010). It comes as no surprise that, in the U.S., standardized testing burdens students and produces excess psychological pressures on teachers.
In standardized testing, the issues of low self-esteem and stereotype should be considered. Low standardized test scores are believed to be directly related to the social stigma of academic inferiority and underachievement (Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele & Brown, 1999). As previously mentioned, many students who fail to pass standardized tests for one or several reasons are further discouraged to improve their results or pursue higher education. Labeling and stigmatization are important reasons why failed standardized tests impede students’ learning and career progress. Because standardized tests are widely accepted as an important social measure of students’ competencies and intellects, students who show no such competences are likely to face the threat of stereotyping. Failed tests may throw these students overboard and reduce their chances to become full members of their community. This is why standardized tests may harm large numbers of students without any definite reason (Stiggins, 2002).
Standardized Tests: Effects on Students
These problems suggest that the effects of standardized tests on students are not always positive. It is no secret that high-stakes standardized tests produce huge impacts on students, teachers, and the quality of instruction in schools. Moon, Brighton, Jarvis, and Hall (2007) examined the effects of state standardized testing programs on teachers and students and concluded that both felt a tremendous amount of psychological pressure associated with the importance of standardized tests and the need to produce high scores. Under the pressure of standardized testing, teachers are not always able to deliver the desired quality of instructional materials (Moon et al., 2007). The system of preparing students for tests is neither systemic nor well-organized: students experience a dramatic increase in test preparation activities before the test is administered and an abrupt decline in these activities after the test is completed (Moon et al., 2007). It comes as no surprise that students do not have enough time to prepare for the test and have few opportunities to reevaluate their results and address their mistakes.
Interestingly, many teachers hold misbalanced or overtly negative perceptions of standardized tests. Many teachers feel that the focus of standardization is on basic skills and minimum standards which, in turn, diminish the depth and richness of the curriculum material (Moon et al., 2007). Under the influence of standardized tests, teachers are limited in their autonomy over instructional decisions (Moon et al., 2007). Instead of motivating students to learn more, the main goal of schooling is to increase test scores by all means (Moon et al., 2007). In this situation, students can hardly enjoy the process of learning and realize their cognitive and emotional potentials to the fullest. They are limited by the need to pass standardized tests and are limited in their opportunities to expand their worldview beyond school curriculums. Meanwhile, teachers are being pressured by the district administration to improve test scores (Shepard, 1991). Negative reports in the media further complicate the situation (Shepard, 1991).
It seems that, throughout its history, standardized testing has persistently failed to improve the quality of instructional methods in schools. Driven by standardized test scores and measurements, teachers have to focus on basic skills instruction (Shepard, 1991). Too much attention to tested format and content has become a norm across many American schools (Shepard, 1991). Consequentially, non-tested content may be excluded from school curriculums. Because of testing, teachers may feel that they do not pay enough attention to extended projects or tasks involving higher-order thinking (Lomax, West, Harmon, Viator & Madaus, 1995; Shepard, 1991). Eventually, under the pressure of high-stakes testing, school curriculums become seriously distorted, as far as teachers spend weeks reviewing the standardized testing content and giving students complex preparation materials to test their knowledge and skills. Even then, the picture is not as bad as it seems. Teachers recognize that standardized tests reduce the risks of cheating and promote objectivity in their judgments (Shepard, 1991). This is where the question of standardized tests’ validity comes into play.
Standardized Tests: Valid or Not?
The question of validity in standardized testing is extremely important. In standardized tests, validity “tells us whether a test measures what it claims to measure, how well it measures it and what can be inferred from that measurement” (Rudert, 1993, p.50). Validity is a complex construct and can be measured only within the context where test results are applied (Rudert, 1993). Despite the growing popularity of standardization in school education, many tests still lack construct validity; put simply, they do not measure what they are intended to measure (Rudert, 1993). For example, if standardized tests are intended to measure students’ writing abilities, selecting a missing word or finding errors in a sentence can hardly accomplish this mission. Multiple-choice formats that are widely used in standardized testing can hardly measure students’ ability to create and process knowledge.
Difficulties with predictive validity in standardized testing cannot be ignored. At times, standardized tests administered in schools lack adequate constructs to measure children’s readiness for secondary school or college (Rudert, 1993). Nevertheless, of all tests currently in use, standardized tests have proved to be the most valid predictor of students’ readiness to pursue further education. Of all tests that were ever developed for American schools, standardized tests have come to exemplify the most reliable predictor of graduate students’ success (Kuncel & Hezlett, 2007). Standardized test scores provide reliable and objective information as to whether students are to be successful in graduate education and which disciplines are to benefit them (Kuncel & Hezlett, 2007). It is clear that standardized tests will remain the central measure of students’ knowledge in American schools in the coming decade. Despite the growing disagreement regarding their utility and effects on students and instruction, standardized testing is widely recognized as a reliable tool of measuring students’ knowledge. Simultaneously, education professionals and instructional designers should answer the two fundamental questions: (1) what is the main goal of testing in schools?; and (2) how to ensure that standardized tests motivate students to go beyond school curriculums?
Standardized Tests: The Right to Exist
In light of all these difficulties, I still believe that standardized tests do have the right to exist. In today’s system of schooling, standardized tests are equally fast and cost-effective. They create the general picture of students’ achievement in schools. They help to identify and address possible gaps in learning and instruction. At the same time, I am convinced that the results of standardized tests should be treated with caution. One of the central questions is whether at all standardization is possible and real. Standardization was found to harm minority students and limit gifted students’ opportunity to learn beyond school curriculums (Lomax et al., 1995; Moon et al., 2007). While standardized tests remain the foundational feature of American education, it is high time for education professionals to reconsider their validity and applicability in today’s diverse environments. The best schools and education professionals can do is to step away from standardization and design new ways of measuring learning progress in students.
Standardized tests have become a buzzword in today’s education research. Much has been written and said about the pros and cons of standardized testing in schools. Cost-efficiency, uniformity and fairness are the main benefits provided by standardized tests. At the same time, standardization often harms minority and gifted students. Under the pressure of standardization, teachers feel limited in their autonomy over instructional decisions. Even then, standardized tests do have the right to exist, although their results should be treated with caution. The best schools and education professionals can do is to step away from standardization and design new ways of measuring learning progress in students.