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What are Some Criticisms of Standardized Tests?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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With the increasing use of standardized tests to assess students and schools, some critics have begun to speak out about flaws that they see in the hope that they can stimulate a discussion which may result in reform. These tests can be a valuable education tool, providing a basic yardstick to see how children are performing in relation to their peers, but some people have raised concerns about how heavily they are relied on for feedback about student performance. Most critics care very much about children and the education that they receive, but feel that testing alone cannot accurately convey whether or not a child is learning and progressing. These critics have taken their complaints to a wide variety of forums, and they include parents, teachers, and education professionals who are concerned about the well being of children.

One of the most frequently stated criticisms of standardized tests is that they do not measure creativity and problem solving ability. Because they are typically presented in a multiple choice format, a teacher cannot, for example, see where a child went wrong when he or she failed to solve a math problem correctly, because no work is shown. In addition, critics feel that the questions are often too simplistic for children to fully demonstrate reading comprehension, critical thinking, and problem solving. Especially in the case of reading selections, there may not be a single "right" answer to a question, and learning why children pick the answers that they do might help educators to provide better support.

Critics who feel that tests are too simplistic believe that knowing information by rote does not always mean that information has been digested. For example, a student might be able to answer a question asking when Columbus came to the Americas, but may not understand the cultural and historical implications of the Age of Exploration, and the profound impact that Columbus had on global history. Test takers are not provided with space to process and explore issues because it would make them prohibitively expensive to administer and score.

Many critics are also concerned about bias in test taking. Certain cultural and language biases may be impossible to eradicate entirely from standardized tests, critics believe, meaning that some populations such as girls and minorities may be at a disadvantage. While test writing companies do their best to eliminate obvious bias and offensive language, it is a difficult thing to correct for entirely.

Educators are concerned about these tests because many of them feel that they encourage teachers to teach students test taking strategies, and to “teach to the test,” which may have a negative impact on the quality of education that these teachers can offer. Critics are worried that students may be forced to study a narrow range of topics, rather than exploring a wide variety of issues, and they will not learn valuable life skills as a result of stress about standardized test performance. Many teachers believe that standardized tests restrict the curricula that they can teach, because they want their students to succeed on important and sometimes life-changing tests.

This is also a concern for some critics, who believe that the practice of high-stakes testing is potentially harmful for children. Some children exhibit extreme emotional and physical stress when confronted with standardized tests, and educators have recorded children crying, vomiting, or acting out aggressively due to the pressure that high-stakes testing creates. Some educational assessors are also concerned that such testing may bring about cheating, because students are anxious to perform well and teachers want to see their students scoring well.

Critics of standardized testing believe that children should be evaluated in a number of ways, rather than by using only one system to assess the needs and learning of students. Teachers play an important role, because they interact with children on a daily basis in the classroom and can speak out about potential problems that they see, as well as providing educational enrichment and support. Outside observers can also participate in evaluations by holding interviews with teachers and students, sitting in on active classes, and considering other evaluation methods to supplement testing.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon326252 — On Mar 20, 2013

My opinion towards standardized testing is that we should not have it. I am a teenager now and in high school and it is hard when you're in school learning all this new stuff every day and having to remember every single thing you learn, just for a 50-60 question test and having that score decide whether you pass to the next grade or not. Plus, look at all the doctors, veterinarians, pharmacists, teachers, etc. All of the successful workers today only had to take one or two standardized tests when they were in school and look at how successful they are now. All they had to do was pass their classes all year long and then take a standardized test when they got to high school and that was only once or twice.

Students today have to make sure they pass the class and the test in order to pass to the next grade. We're going to be so worried about passing the test that when it comes down to getting the job we want and went to school for, we're not even going to remember what to do in real life!

By amypollick — On May 22, 2012

@anon270300: Standardized tests mostly measure how good a test-taker you are: how well you manage time, for instance, and do you get bogged down in one problem and so forth.

Here are a couple of tips for helping your son do better on the math portion of the test: Answer *every* question, even if he has no idea what the answer is. Doesn't matter. He's going to hit on the right one, statistically, at least 25 percent of the time, and most of these tests don't count wrong answers against the test taker, but only the blank ones.

"If in doubt, Charlie out." That refers to the fact that, statistically, more answers are letter "C" (Charlie) than any others. Answer randomly, but scatter in a good number of "C" answers.

Keeping these tips in mind produced a better math score for me on the ACT than I probably deserved, considering how pathetic my own math skills are. I ran up against a *lot* of math concepts that I'd never seen before. I aced the rest of it, but math has always been my Achilles heel.

Good luck to your son.

By anon270300 — On May 22, 2012

I home school and my son is on the special needs spectrum as well as having math difficulties. He is above average in other subjects but because of his poor math skills, giving him a standardized test is just plain crazy. I have to comply with the state, so I will do it, but he will get a very low mark in math because we haven't even covered a third of these topics!

By anon266210 — On May 04, 2012

The problem with how my school system standardized testing is that it's timed. They give us 30 minutes and 55 questions for a reading portion where we are supposed to analyze the passage and reflect it in the answers. When you barely have 30 seconds to do so and if you falter you fall behind and end up bubbling a bunch of random answers the last five minutes.

They shouldn't time it like that to measure knowledge because that's not telling them what we know. It's telling them how fast we can take a test. It's like looking over a test you rushed to finish before the bell in class and seeing that you missed a question you knew how to do and would've gotten the right answer if you'd been given proper time.

By anon150218 — On Feb 07, 2011

I got a 1440 on my SAT, a 790 on my GRE quantitative, and a 760 on my GMAT. Don't ask me how it ends up this way, but standardized tests are some of the easiest things in the world to me, it's all basic high school math.

Yet I struggle a lot with grades. I have ranked in the bottom part of my class in both my undergrad (top 50 engineering school) and my business school (arguably top 10). I get my ass kicked quantitatively. And trust me I go to class/study quite a bit, not a slacker by any means.

I just don't grasp advanced subjects nearly as well as some other students do. To me that is the big difference between standardized tests - they don't test how good you can grasp advanced concepts, being able to go that level deeper.

Living proof that standardized tests are not all that.

By anon132400 — On Dec 06, 2010

I'm not an expert on this topic, but my dad teaches in an inner city school,and it's very hard for him to teach and push his kids.

First, many of them don't care. Neither do the parents for that matter. It seems like everybody has missed the fact that parents don't hold their own children accountable. Teachers aren't responsible for kids going home and doing homework; there's only so much they can do.

Secondly, there aren't any gifted programs in elementary school. If they wanted to, how would they pick the children to be in the program if they don't have tests to see who can handle the program? Lastly, think of how impossible it is to push your kids when you have 6 special education students who are already falling behind the pace of the regular class. My dad isn't a perfect teacher, but education won't change unless the kids are open to learning.

There isn't one simple way to fix our schools!

I hope this provided another view from a fellow kid.

By suntan12 — On Oct 08, 2010

SurfNturf-I know that there are standardized tests pros and cons as no program is perfect, but we have to get serious about our education system because a country as dynamic as ours should never be ranked 25th in math in the world.

That is really sad. We need to take the politics out of the school system and eliminate the teacher’s unions completely. While I know that standardized tests are a start, we have a long way to go before our elementary and high school education becomes as dynamic as our country is.

The movie, “Waiting for Superman” touches on this subject and is a great film. It demonstrates the malaise of the education system which is primarily blamed on the teachers’ unions.

By surfNturf — On Oct 08, 2010

Bhutan-I think I saw the same show. I have to say that taking the excuses out of the school system is a start. I agree that standardized testing may stress some kids out, but that is life.

There will always be things in life that will make us nervous to the point of causing anxiety and sometimes when we learn to deal with anxiety like this as a child, it will be much easier as an adult.

By Bhutan — On Oct 08, 2010

Comfyshoes-You know I saw a documentary the other day about a charter school that they placed in Harlem. Here the students had a 100% graduation rate that went on to college.

They did not accept any excuses and really challenged the students to excel. They created a culture of success from the beginning and even took freshmen students on college tours so that they could visualize themselves going to college.

Many of these graduates went on to get scholarships to some of the best universities in the country.

This school was not worried about standardized test data and New York does have high stakes standardized testing called the Regents exam. If you don’t pass the Regents, you don’t get promoted to the next grade.

By comfyshoes — On Oct 08, 2010

GreenWeaver- But why can’t they just elevate the level of education offered and expect more from the children instead of less.

We should offer gifted programs in every school in order to provide additional enrichment for students that need to remain engaged in the school system.

I don’t think that teachers have to spend so much time with the elementary standardized tests if they offer a rich curriculum, but they usually teach to the average and try not to offer more challenging curriculum.

By GreenWeaver — On Oct 08, 2010

Oasis11-I agree. I know here in Florida, 3rd grade standardized tests are called the FCAT and there is test taking material available in most educational supply stores as well as prep classes outside the classroom in order to help the child prepare for the test.

I understand that the argument is that the teachers in the public school system spend so much time with test preparation instead of actually teaching other things. But I think it is another excuse.

By oasis11 — On Oct 08, 2010

While it is true that elementary standardized tests don't measure creativity which is also an indication of intelligence, I still feel that the no child left behind standardized tests should be given because we need to have some sort of measurement of what our children are learning.

Standardized tests pros allow us to also see which the higher performing schools are and which the deficient schools are. It also gives a parent an opportunity to pull their child from a lower performing school and either put their child in a private school or opt to home school the child.

Standardized test data is important because it gives parents the options. It also takes funding away from low performing schools which aren't getting the job done anyway.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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