Is standardized testing a symptom of failing education system?

Standardized testing, which is again/still at the center of a media maelstrom, has been a bone of contention for almost as long as standardized testing has been in existence in the United States.

One major aspect of the controversy surrounding standardized testing is how the resultant scores impact students, teachers, administrators and schools. Low scores can prevent a student from passing to the next grade and can cause teachers to be censured or fired and schools to close. High scores can increase educational funding to the school, reward teachers and provide bonuses for administrators. Everyone has skin in this game.

Scandals in the name of education

Thirty-five educators in Atlanta are alleged to have cheated by giving students the answers on standardized tests or manipulating test scores, and criminal charges from racketeering and theft to influencing witnesses and conspiracy have been filed.

Students at Portland High School are boycotting the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests mandated by the state, and educators in Seattle are facing disciplinary action because they refuse to administer the Measure of Academic Progress tests mandated by the state, according to U.S. News & World Report (2013).

Pros and cons of standardized testing

Both arguments for and against standardized testing are compelling. The ProCon.org website provides a synopsis of 22 pro and 22 con arguments with regard to the question "Is the use of standardized tests improving education in America?" One side says "Tests do have a positive effect on student achievement," while the other side says "Tests do not have a positive effect on student achievement." Both sides have studies to back up their contradictory assertions. And so it goes for 21 additional pro and 21 additional con arguments backed by 40 or more studies that would surely have to contradict each other.

Throwing out the baby with the bath water by eliminating testing altogether doesn't seem to be a reasonable option. Both sides seem to be able to get behind the idea of a fair and unbiased measure of academic achievement, but opinions on how to get there differ radically.

Alternatives to standardized testing?

In a New York Times article, James Heckman, a leading U.S. economist studying human development, questions whether the overriding issue might be a broken American education system. He references cognitive studies that show preschool is the time to most effectively address learning inequities. However, a 2012 final report on an impact study of Head Start, a program that provides preschool educational intervention, revealed that preschool gains were no longer evident by the third grade. This study seems to contradict the studies cited by Heckman.

Agreeing that our educational system is long overdue for revamping, Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of education policy at McGraw-Hill Education, proposes "3 Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education" (2013):

  1. Redesign our school system by grouping students based on knowledge and skill levels rather than age and grade levels.
  2. Create individualized learning pathways through education technology.
  3. Explore alternative pathways from secondary education to employment.

So what is the answer? The reasons for our educational deficits are not clear-cut. Neither are the various proposed solutions. Most would agree that our educational system is broken as witnessed by the less-than-stellar scores by U.S. students on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses learning levels of students worldwide. Of the top 34 global economic "mover and shaker" nations, the U.S. scored 14th in reading, 25th in mathematics, and 17th in science behind many countries not usually identified as world leaders or superpowers.

Regardless of which solution to our education crisis makes the most sense, all of them require long-term planning and implementation. Maybe it's well past time we, as a nation, stop assessing blame, wasting money and fighting among ourselves and work together to come up with a viable, long-range, national education plan that works for all of our students.


U.S. News & World Report, "3 Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education," U.S. News & World Report, Jeff Livingston, February 15, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2013/02/15/3-ways-to-radically-remake-us-schools-and-education
The New York Times,"Divisions Form in Atlanta as Bail Is Set in Cheating Case," Kim Severson and Robbie Brown, April 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/us/atlanta-cheating-scandal-jailing-educators.html?ref=education
The New York Times, "Investments in Education May Be Misdirected," Eduardo Porter, April 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/business/studies-highlight-benefits-of-early-education.html?ref=education
National Center for Education Statistics, "Program for International Student Assessment (PISA): 2009 results," Stuart Kerachsky, December 7, 2010, http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/ppt/pisa2009handout.ppt
The New York Times,"Scandal in Atlanta Reignites Debate Over Tests' Role, Motoko Rich, April 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/education/atlanta-cheating-scandal-reignites-testing-debate.html?ref=education
U.S. News & World Report, "Testing Boycott Spreads to Portland High Schools and Beyond," High School Notes, Kelsey Sheehy, February 18, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/high-school-notes/2013/02/18/testing-boycott-spreads-to-portland-high-schools-and-beyond
Administration for Children & Families, "Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report, Executive Summary" U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation, December 21, 2012, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/third-grade-follow-up-to-the-head-start-impact-study-final-report-executive
Standardized Tests ProCon.org, "Is the use of standardized tests improving education in America?" http://standardizedtests.procon.org/#background

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