The issue of reforms in education is an ongoing process as policymakers endeavors to address the ever-evolving dynamics in the sector. Part of this process entails creating an environment that caters to the needs of all learners in the system. Testing students’ level of understanding and progress is an integral part of the education system. In the US and other many countries around the world, standardized testing has been adopted as the golden rule of assessing learners. However, different stakeholders, including teachers, have raised concerns about the effectiveness of this form of testing because it has numerous inherent inconsistencies that may not allow the holistic assessment of students. Additionally, standardized testing is being used as the yardstick used to determine funding or the ultimate privatization of schools and this aspect is problematic because it encourages inequality in education. This paper argues that standardized testing should be overhauled and replaced with a better system that captures the students’ competencies holistically.
The major problem with standardized tests is that they are not reliable measures of student performance. This form of testing encourages rote learning with minimal retention of the information learned. Leading to the tests, students are given overwhelming information that is likely to appear on the tests. Therefore, learners are compelled to consume unusually high amounts of data within a short period, and thus they can retain very little in the process. According to Morgan, the use of standardized tests as “the primary means to evaluate schools and teachers in the United States has contributed to severe dilemmas, including misleading information on what students know, lower-level instruction, cheating, less collaboration, unfair treatment of teachers, and biased teaching” (p. 67). As such, these tests are misleading because they seemingly test one’s ability to cram information as opposed to understanding the content together with its applicability in real-life situations. In addition, purporting to comprehensively assess a student’s yearlong learning and competence in a single test fails to consider various factors, such as the mental wellbeing of the learner at the time of the test.
However, proponents of this testing system argue that without a standardized approach to examinations, it would be difficult to make non-partisan education policies. Under such circumstances, policymakers would be required to rely on scores by individual teachers, who, at times, could influence the outcomes. Therefore, standardized testing is important because it levels the ground and gives policymakers the basis for their decisions. However, when weighed against the assertion that such tests encourage rote learning, the claim about policymaking does not make sense. According to a study conducted in Florida, using a survey of 708 teachers, the majority of the participants “believed that the testing program was not taking schools in the right direction. They commented that the test was used improperly and that the one-time test scores were not an accurate assessment of students’ learning and development” (Jones and Egley, p. 1). The primary reason for education is to develop the learners’ thinking capacity and the ability to reason critically, interact with content, and make meaning out of it. Consequently, cramming information and reproducing it during a test does not amount to learning.
Another insidious problem with standardized testing is that it promotes the calculated proliferation of charter and voucher schools, whereby public money is being given to private investors to run schools as profit entities. This scheme is perniciously tied to the pervasive and widespread standardized testing, which has become the golden rule in the American education system. Performance is closely linked with the socio-economic status of leaners (Ruijsbroek et al, p. 1). On the one hand, students from poor backgrounds or with various disabilities are likely to perform dismally in standardized tests. On the other hand, those from highly advantaged backgrounds score impressively in these exams. Therefore, it is expected that schools having children from disadvantaged environments or with disabilities will post poor ratings in line with the underlying performance. Ironically, such schools will be earmarked for privatization based on such discrepant judgment. Poorly performing schools are being defunded systematically with the aim of them becoming privatized, which is wrong because the method used to conclude that they are underperforming is prejudiced in its nature. Therefore, there is an urgent need to reform the education sector for the sake of disadvantaged children.
The supporters of standardized testing would counter this point by noting that students need choices, and thus the government should support them to study at places of their preference. In other words, students should not be forced to study in public schools when they have the option of learning in private schools. This assertion underscores the importance of school voucher programs, charter schools, and education savings accounts (ESAs), among other related initiatives. However, public money should not be channeled towards developing public education and making it as competitive and attractive as the private sector. Additionally, using standardized scores to determine the privatization of institutions is wrong, as argued earlier. Thompson Dorsey and Roulhac (2019) argue that the present-day “school choice and privatization movements may be a part of a larger social, political, and legal cycle of inequality that has established residence in the American educational system for more than a century” (p. 420). The time has come for the involved policymakers and other stakeholders to relook at the issue of standardized testing objectively and address the underlying problems, which are affecting learners negatively.
Finally, the standardized testing system has been termed as a racial project seeking to promote inequality in schools. Au argues that if “standardized tests provide for the fair and objective measurement of individuals, then standardized testing holds the promise that every test taker is objectively offered a fair and equal chance at educational, social, and economic achievement” (p. 46). The problem with this kind of argument is that it overlooks the widespread and sometimes institutionalized racism and class privilege in the US. The veiled assumption that this form of testing avails equality through meritocracy is misplaced. The notion that regardless of one’s social background, economic class, race, gender, a student can become successful through hard work is superficial. This perspective insinuates that the disproportionate failure of students from working-class and other minority groups is purely an individual issue. In other words, these students lack grit, and they do not work as hard as required for them to score highly in the tests. However, this argument is erroneous because such learners come from difficult backgrounds that adversely affect their capacity to learn effectively and compete fairly with their counterparts.
This point could be countered by the claim that standardized testing has undergone a rigorous process of development to ensure that all the involved students are assessed equitably and fairly. However, this argument misses the point being raised here because the issue goes beyond testing to student preparation and mediating factors such as poverty, language barriers, and racism. According to Knoester and Au, “the intrinsic features of high-stakes testing, combined with current systems of school choice, function as mechanisms used for racial coding that facilitate segregation and compound inequalities found in schools” (p. 1). Based on the critical race theory, minority students do not have access to the same resources and learning opportunities as their counterparts from privileged backgrounds. Therefore, when tested equally using a standard test, children from poor backgrounds will perform poorly, and when such results are used for policymaking, the ultimate outcome is the insidious promotion of structural racism. Almost every major initiative in education is tied to performance, including value-added measurement, student growth models, the decision to close schools, funding, and teacher tenure, among other related factors; hence, the need for urgent reforms.
This paper has presented a convincing argument on why standardized testing is bad for education. While the points raised here could be opposed to converting counterclaims, this paper has shown that, in the end, such a testing system works against the spirit of holistic learning. Standardized testing does not provide a comprehensive way of assessing learners as it focuses on the ability to cram content and reproduce it during the examination. As such, students are not prepared to solve problems or become innovative, which explains why most of them struggle later in life as adults because they lack the requisite skills to survive in a highly competitive environment. Additionally, standardized testing is part of a carefully planned scheme to privatize public education. Schools that perform poorly are earmarked for privatization. However, the poor performance may have nothing to do with instruction methods or student competency. Other underlying factors, such as structural racism, poor socio-economic backgrounds, and lack of resources, could be contributing elements. Therefore, there is an urgent need to reform education and introduce a testing system that assesses students holistically.
- Au, Wayne. “Meritocracy 2.0: High-stakes, Standardized Testing as Racial Project of Neoliberal Multiculturalism.” Educational Policy, vol. 30, no.1, 2016, pp.39-62.
- Jones, Brett, and Robert Egley. “Voices From The Frontlines: Teachers’ Perceptions of High-Stakes Testing.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol. 12, 2004, pp.1-34.
- Knoester, Matthew, and Wayne Au. “Standardized Testing and School Segregation: Like Tinder for Fire?” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 20, no.1, 2017, pp. 1-14.
- Morgan, Hani. “Relying on High-Stakes Standardized Tests to Evaluate Schools and Teachers: A Bad Idea.” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, vol. 89, no. 2, 2016, pp. 67-72.
- Ruijsbroek, Annemarie, et al. “School Performance: A Matter of Health or Socio-Economic Background? Findings from the PIAMA Birth Cohort Study.” PloS One, vol. 10, no. 8, 2015, pp. 1-17.
- Thompson Dorsey, Dana, and Gwen Roulhac. “From Desegregation to Privatization: A Critical Race Policy Analysis of School Choice and Educational Opportunity in North Carolina.” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 94, no. 4, 2019, pp. 420-441.