Standardized tests are pests—here’s why

Key points:

  • Standardized tests aren’t inclusive and often lead to unnecessary stress
  • Educators should shift focus from standardized tests to ensuring students become independent learners
  • See related article: What’s the state of K-12 assessment?
  • For more news on assessments, see eSN’s Innovative Teaching page

Standardized testing has long been a contentious topic in the field of education. While the primary goal of standardized testing is to measure student achievement and set benchmarks for educational standards, it carries unintended consequences. This article delves into the multifaceted impact of state tests on various aspects of education.

Standardized reading tests

In recent years, the landscape of reading instruction has undergone a dramatic transformation. Teachers now find themselves navigating a shift away from the immersive experience of novels towards a regimen of skill-and-drill exercises. The pressure to align curricula with the test format has led to a prioritization of short-stories. This shift, while intended to improve test performance, comes at a cost. It robs students of the opportunity to lose themselves in the rich tapestry of novels, to fall in love with books over extended periods of time, and to develop a profound and lasting connection with literature.

Furthermore, this myopic focus on test preparation diminishes the joy of reading for pleasure. By constraining students to short-stories (designed to mimic the test format), we risk stifling their exploration of diverse genres, complex characters, and critical thinking skills that occurs within the context of experiencing a well-crafted novel. The unintended long-term consequence is a generation of students who may excel in meeting the demands of a test, but who miss out on the deeper, transformative power of literature to shape the minds and hearts of learners!

Standardized math tests

The evolution of math education has been marked by a shift towards conceptual teaching methods insofar as students no longer memorize rote procedures. In other words, students are now tasked with understanding the underlying principles when engaging in mathematics. For instance, instead of simply learning that the decimal point moves when multiplying or dividing decimals by a power of 10, they grasp the dynamic of the digits shifting. The change towards deeper comprehension and conceptual understanding is a positive development.

However, standardized tests have lagged behind in adapting to this new pedagogical approach. While modern math education emphasizes not just arriving at a solution, but understanding the reasoning behind it, standardized tests remain fixated on the final answer. This dissonance creates a misalignment between classroom instruction and test expectations. By failing to account for the importance of explaining mathematical thinking, these tests fall short in accurately assessing students’ true understanding and problem-solving abilities. In this way, the very tests meant to measure mathematical proficiency inadvertently hinder the development of critical thinking and comprehensive understanding of mathematical concepts.


In addition to the specific areas discussed above, state tests are entangled with a host of broader concerns. Research consistently highlights that standardized assessments perpetuate racial disparities, placing marginalized students at a disadvantage. Additionally, the high-stakes nature of these tests can lead to heightened levels of anxiety and stress among students (and their families), potentially impacting their overall well-being and mental health. Furthermore, standardized tests do not consider multi-modal approaches to both teaching and assessing.

A compelling alternative to state tests is the use of portfolio reviews. This method offers a more comprehensive view of student progress and fosters a growth mindset. By showcasing a range of student work, portfolios enable educators to assess individual strengths, growth, and areas for improvement more accurately. This shift towards a portfolio-based assessment not only aligns with modern pedagogy but also ensures a more equitable evaluation of student achievement, regardless of their background or circumstances.

Nonetheless, in a shifting landscape where holistic admissions processes are gaining traction, standardized tests continue to wield disproportionate influence in college admissions. Many higher education institutions recognize the limitations of relying solely on test scores and are striving to adopt a more comprehensive approach to evaluating applicants. However, the state tests, which heavily impact high school transcripts, do not reflect this shift towards a more holistic evaluation.

Placing an undue emphasis on standardized test scores may cause colleges to overlook other crucial dimensions of a student’s profile, such as extracurricular activities, personal essays, and letters of recommendation. This narrow focus on test performance can impede the admissions process from truly capturing the diverse talents and potential of students. As colleges aim to create vibrant, diverse communities, it is imperative that they reevaluate the weight placed on standardized test scores and consider a more balanced, multifaceted approach to admissions.

It is time for education policymakers and stakeholders to engage in ongoing discussions, challenging the status quo and advocating for a more balanced and effective approach to assessment in education. While rote memorization is important to an extent, educators should be able to shift their focus from standardized tests to instilling students with skills (research, critical-thinking, project-based learning, etc.) that can allow them to explore various topics with minimal assistance from their teachers so as to become independent learners.

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