The Myths of Standardized Testing

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, we delve into myths surrounding standardized testing. We discuss the merits of standardization, what we can and cannot learn about a student from these tests, and why the author has an irrational fear of dinosaurs. A short quiz follows.

The Myths of Standardized Testing

We've all had the dream: you're sitting in a large auditorium, surrounded by your peers, taking the SATs. You look down - you're in your underwear! You look to your left and a large purple dinosaur is singing a song about your inevitable failure. You look to the right and wonder why your grandmother is taking the test with you. You wake up in a cold sweat before you realize it was all just a dream. We've all had that dream, right? Was it just me?

Standardized testing has become a huge issue in the last several decades. Proponents argue it is an excellent way to determine academic ability, decide which students should advance, and serve as a good measure of school and teacher performance. Opponents of testing claim we put too much pressure on test results and 'teaching to the test', which are ruining our school system. Each side perpetuates myths to further its agenda. Let's put aside partisan bickering and examine these myths so you can make an informed choice in your stance on standardized testing.

Before we get into any myths, we need to accurately define standardized testing. All we mean by a standardized test is a test that is conducted with equivalent questions taken by students under similar conditions and with similar procedures. That's it! The tests, unto themselves, are in no way good or evil. All a standardized test does is allow the results of two or more students who take the test to be compared. The danger comes when too much is read into the results or people assume that testing one aspect of knowledge is a direct measure of a different ability. I'm getting ahead of myself; onto the myths!

The dreaded Scantron sheet
A standardized test sheet

Common Myths

One of the most common myths you'll find is that standardized tests measure intelligence. This is, for the most part, untrue. I have to tack on 'for the most part' because there is evidence that specific test scores, like the ACT, correlate with IQ test scores. However, in the vast majority of standardized tests, the score a student gets only measures his ability at that specific test. For example, a student scores well on a geography test. That doesn't mean he is brilliant. It doesn't mean he is stupid. It means he knew the answers to that specific test. That's all.

Another common myth is that standardized test scores measure school and teacher quality. This is, again, untrue. The greatest measure for school quality I have ever found is the students who attend. A harsh reality of education is that teachers and schools don't get to pick their students. If a school is in an extremely poor neighborhood that is riddled with drugs, violence, single-parent households, and poverty, guess what? This school is probably not going to fare well on standardized tests, despite the best efforts of students, teachers, and administrators.

Many anti-test advocates blame standardized testing for the problems caused by teaching to the test. This methodology, sometimes derogatorily referred to as 'drill and kill', is when a class's curriculum and teaching focus purely on teaching the answers to a standardized test. The problem with this myth is that this style of teaching predates the widespread use of standardized testing. While it may be right to denigrate this style of teaching, it cannot be blamed on standardized testing. Funnily enough, research has found that teaching to the test actually produces lower test scores than intellectually challenging coursework that encourages creative problem solving and critical thinking.

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