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Standardized Testing Pro's & Con's

Lee Carroll, Marquis Grant
  • Author
    Lee Carroll

    Dr Carroll has taught Sciences in schools around the world from University to K-12. She earned a Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine degree summa cum laude from Life College of Chiropractic, and joined the Pi Tau Delta National Chiropractic Honor Society upon graduation.

  • Instructor
    Marquis Grant

    Marquis has a Doctor of Education degree.

Standardized tests are tests that are given en masse to collect data on skill level, ability, and knowledge. Discover the pros and cons of standardized testing in elementary and secondary schools. Updated: 03/16/2022

Standardized Test Definition

Anything that is standardized has been created such that anyone will be subject to the same level of expectation. A standardized test, or high stakes test, therefore, is one that a complete cohort of students takes in order to be compared to other groups taking the same assessment. For example, in a public school setting all third-graders will take a standardized reading test created by the State Department of Education, in order to assure that all third-graders across the State are promoted into fourth grade with the same reading level. In this example, a standardized test for reading will assure that textbooks selected for grade four will be appropriate for entering students. Furthermore, the vocabulary used by the teacher will be understood by the students.

Standardized has another meaning beyond being the same for all stakeholders. A standardized test is designed based on the curriculum standards of the particular school district and state standards. In the latter part of the 20th century, all funded schools became accountable to adopt curriculum standards to guide teachers in the classroom in addressing the exact benchmarks of each subject area. For instance, students in a biology class will study ecology, ecosystems, and genetics. Teacher resources will further break down those main topics into benchmarks or sub-topics. Ecosystem chapters will cover predator-prey relationships, environmental protection, symbiosis, and so on. These benchmarks become the grading standards on report cards, guaranteeing that any student can transfer to another school district within the state and be on par with their classmates.

Standardized tests are often administered in a large-group setting, like a computer lab, auditorium, or a testing center. Strict rules exist during exam administration, in order to preserve test validity. No mobile devices are allowed into the testing center, and there exists an approved calculator list. Tests are packaged up and sent off-site for computer scoring. Some standardized tests are taken online and can provide results immediately to test takers.


Tests are shipped to headquarters for scoring.

Postal worker unloads conveyor of boxes.


The purpose of standardized testing in public schools began primarily to assure grade-level parity but has declined into competition for funding and school rating to attract families. The most popular of these are aptitude, intelligence, and achievement tests.

The most common of standardized tests in education are international aptitude tests, to assess literacy skills and gain college admission. Another type of standardized test, given in elementary school, is the IQ or Intelligence Quotient test, used primarily to group students outside the general bell curve, such as gifted or special needs. IQ tests are also used in adult populations, for example in sorting military leadership positions. Achievement tests tend to be more state-driven and comparative locally, given for instance to all sixth-graders in California to measure science achievement.

Standardized Test Examples

An assessment is an examination at one point in time. Thus, standardized tests provide one way to offer a standardized assessment. The most popular of high-stakes standardized tests is the College Board SAT or Scholastic Aptitude Test, because it determines what college a student may qualify to attend. Most state colleges have a strict cut-off of 500 average (out of 800 points) on the math and English sections. Engineering colleges have higher standards of 700 on the math portion. Scoring algorithms change through the years, so students are advised to create a College Board account and keep up to date on test-taking strategies. Some years and some tests allow for guessing, whereas at other times there exists a penalty for wrong answers.

Princeton University runs the College Board testing service and provides extensive online practice. In order to practice for the SAT, students begin by taking the PSAT in ninth and tenth grades, statistical analysis shows that scores improve with experience. Getting familiar with the answer bubbles or the online buttons can boost timing, enabling students to finish the test. The SAT is given both locally and internationally, in approved testing sites.

Here is a sample question and answer from a recent SAT, showing how a standardized assessment or test is normally formatted and its depth of knowledge.


SAT practice problem, with graph

SAT graph


SAT graphing question

SAT question


SAT correct answer

SAT correct answer is B

Another example of an international standardized test is the TOEFL or Test of English as a Foreign Language. Considered the most accurate measure of English-language literacy, the TOEFL is required for international college applicants to United States universities. Similar to all standardized tests in terms of test security and timing, the TOEFL also has cut-off scores for attendance at different universities. Again, specific requirements are located on university websites. The TOEFL test includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. Many overseas schools offer TOEFL preparation classes for international students.

Other high-stakes standardized test examples include those that dominate graduate university admissions, such as the GMAT or Graduate Management Admission Test which is used for application to business school, the MCAT or Medical College Admission Test which is taken after pre-med requisites are completed, and the GRE or Graduate Record Exam that is taken to enter a master level program at university.

What Are Standardized Tests?

Standardized tests are often referred to as assessments. An assessment is generally defined as the collection and analysis of information about one or more students. When tests are standardized, this means that a particular group of students will take the same test that will be scored and analyzed the same way. The Score result for each student is then compared to the rest of the group to see how well the students performed.

The federal law known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, was created so that schools were held accountable for what students learned throughout the school year. States were required to set goals and objectives for students starting in grade three and, at the end of the year, assess whether students met the required goals and objectives. These standardized, or high stakes, tests not only provide schools, districts, and states with information about student achievement (or lack of), the tests can also determine whether or not students are promoted to the next grade level. Additionally, teachers and/or schools with high numbers of students who do not perform well on the end-of-year tests could face negative consequences as a result.

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The History of Standardized Testing

There have been a variety of standardized tests given in the US, for immigrant naturalization, military fitness, and literacy in school children. Immigrants are tested orally on civics and government as one of the last steps in obtaining US citizenship. Here is a sample question.

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

The Bill of Rights

In 1917, the US was faced with a big challenge: How to screen thousands of military recruits for leadership positions in WWI. The Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits developed Army Alpha and Beta Tests to screen applicants. The Alpha test was a written IQ test, like we are familiar with today; and the Beta was pictorial for those who did not speak English. After the war, IQ tests remained in place to screen immigrants and US school children alike.

The history of school-age standardized testing goes back to its roots in Prussia, as the first teacher training center and centralized testing were devised to monitor educational output. In Boston, Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe introduced standardized tests to check teaching quality and adjudicate school results. The practice spread quickly across the States, and has been increasing since, although concerns have been voiced amongst state legislatures.

Supporters

Standardized tests differ from teacher-made tests because they are not specific to any lesson or activity from the classroom. Instead, standardized tests provide more of a general overview of what students should know at a particular grade level. Those in favor of standardized tests argue that such testing holds teachers more accountable for what students should know and, when used with other assessments, should give a pretty accurate picture of student achievement. Since these types of tests are created by people who are not a part of the classroom setting, the results are considered more reliable in measuring student performance.

Opponents

Arguments made against standardized tests usually center around the enormous amount of weight placed on these tests. Many teachers become fearful of poor test results and spend more time teaching to the tests rather than focusing on quality lessons and grade-level curriculum. Furthermore, tests may contain biases that prevent certain groups of students from doing well due to differences in learning style, cultural diversity, language barriers, and low socioeconomic status.

Types of Tests

There are many types of assessments used in school systems in the United States. Let's take a look at a few of the most commonly used standardized tests.

Aptitude Tests

Aptitude tests measure what a student understands about a particular subject area. For example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) measures student knowledge in the areas of reading, math, and essay. Scores on the SAT are used by colleges to make admission decisions. These typically show students' abilities to be successful in higher education settings.

Intelligence Tests

Typical intelligence tests are used to determine a student's mental ability. These tests can indicate whether a student's scores are high enough for the student to be placed in a gifted and talented program or low enough to be referred for special education. These types of tests are generally administered by a psychologist or anyone else trained to give the test and interpret the results.

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Video Transcript

What Are Standardized Tests?

Standardized tests are often referred to as assessments. An assessment is generally defined as the collection and analysis of information about one or more students. When tests are standardized, this means that a particular group of students will take the same test that will be scored and analyzed the same way. The Score result for each student is then compared to the rest of the group to see how well the students performed.

The federal law known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, was created so that schools were held accountable for what students learned throughout the school year. States were required to set goals and objectives for students starting in grade three and, at the end of the year, assess whether students met the required goals and objectives. These standardized, or high stakes, tests not only provide schools, districts, and states with information about student achievement (or lack of), the tests can also determine whether or not students are promoted to the next grade level. Additionally, teachers and/or schools with high numbers of students who do not perform well on the end-of-year tests could face negative consequences as a result.

Supporters

Standardized tests differ from teacher-made tests because they are not specific to any lesson or activity from the classroom. Instead, standardized tests provide more of a general overview of what students should know at a particular grade level. Those in favor of standardized tests argue that such testing holds teachers more accountable for what students should know and, when used with other assessments, should give a pretty accurate picture of student achievement. Since these types of tests are created by people who are not a part of the classroom setting, the results are considered more reliable in measuring student performance.

Opponents

Arguments made against standardized tests usually center around the enormous amount of weight placed on these tests. Many teachers become fearful of poor test results and spend more time teaching to the tests rather than focusing on quality lessons and grade-level curriculum. Furthermore, tests may contain biases that prevent certain groups of students from doing well due to differences in learning style, cultural diversity, language barriers, and low socioeconomic status.

Types of Tests

There are many types of assessments used in school systems in the United States. Let's take a look at a few of the most commonly used standardized tests.

Aptitude Tests

Aptitude tests measure what a student understands about a particular subject area. For example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) measures student knowledge in the areas of reading, math, and essay. Scores on the SAT are used by colleges to make admission decisions. These typically show students' abilities to be successful in higher education settings.

Intelligence Tests

Typical intelligence tests are used to determine a student's mental ability. These tests can indicate whether a student's scores are high enough for the student to be placed in a gifted and talented program or low enough to be referred for special education. These types of tests are generally administered by a psychologist or anyone else trained to give the test and interpret the results.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a standardized test?

The most common standardized tests are those given to school children in the US and internationally, every year. High school students take the SAT worldwide as one component to help determine entrance to university.

What is the purpose of a standardized test?

A standardized test is given for quality control, be that immigrant knowledge, military IQ, or school literacy, in order to assure all passing grades reflect common minimum standards.

What is the meaning of standardized test?

A standardized test is one set exam given to large groups of people, often created to assess quality and accountability of organizations.

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