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Standardized Testing in the United States


While standardized testing has played a very important role during the Industrial Revolution and the twentieth century, recent studies have been increasingly pointing out the problems and inefficiencies of this method of education.

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The past decade has seen a massive increase in the amount of the standardized tests included in the school curriculums that the students have to take in the course of their school work. It has been estimated that an average student needs to pass 112 mandatory standardized tests between kindergarten and the end of school alone.

This testing was introduced into the American educational system for the purpose of creating a shared measuring scale for comparing the skills and abilities of students from different social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, pinpoint which areas of study they need to improve on, and later on to help students choose an higher educational establishment according to their ability.

However, there is an increasing concern that the test scores are failing in their function as a diagnostic tool, and instead have become an ineffective and extremely limited way to evaluate the American educational establishments, educators, and students, and penalize those who don’t meet the requirements. Under these conditions, high marks develop a greater value then actual knowledge and a lot of schools around the country are forced to devote a significant amount of time to prepare their children to the tests, instead of actually educating them.

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the broader context of this situation, and to study the positive and negative effects of the standardized testing on the American education system.

The History of Standardized Testing

The idea of unified formal assessment systems for students has been circulating among the American educators since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Prior to this, the principle method for evaluating the levels of student comprehension was essays, in the tribute to the Ancient Greek Socratic method.

The situation changed under the pressure of the Industrial Revolution and the need for mass amount of moderately-skilled laborers to fill the factories. Standardized examinations offered a simple way to evaluate large masses of students quickly. By the time the First World War began, standardized tests were commonplace, used everywhere from education to Army aptitude tests (Carter, Welner, & Ladson-Billings, 2013).

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When discussing the standardized tests, the academia mostly refers to the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the American College Testing. SAT was introduced in 1926, and consisted of 315 questions which tested the student vocabulary, math, and association creation skills. This test evolved over time, and eventually became the standard for university viability evaluation. ACT was developed in 1959 as competitor to SAT, and assessed the university applicant’s skills, as well as their interests to determine the most appropriate course. Nowadays, these two are part of the plethora of tests which students may face on their way to higher education.

The Effect of Standardized Testing

The Benefits of the System

The general position of the proponents of standardized tests is that they provide a tool for objective, unbiased evaluation of student achievement. By assessing students, the government is able to evaluate the quality of their education, and determine the effectiveness of their teachers and schools. This is very important for many taxpaying parents, who want the best possible education and teachers for their children.

The results of such tests can be easily categorized and documented, which allows for easy tracking of a student improvement history, and the general consensus is that they have a proven degree of reliability.

Finally, the tests are often perceived as more fair, as a result of them taking the same approach to every student (Kelleghan, Madaus, Airasian, 2012).

The Criticisms of the System

On the other hand, there is a growing concern that standardized tests may not be a reliable measure of student performance, or might even have a negative impact upon education. The statistics show that since passing No Child Left Behind in 2002, America has fallen behind in global math estimates from the 18th place to the 31st, with similar results in other areas.

The presence of NCLB tests forced the curriculum to narrow severely, with a reported 44% of schools cutting time spent on subjects other than reading and math to accommodate the test.

One of the principle arguments was that such tests forced students to “study for the mark”, and reduced actual comprehension. A serious consequence of this approach was the increased amount of cheating in tests, often supported by educators, since they viewed the tests less as a signifier of knowledge, and more as a “goal-keeper” which prevented them from moving on with their education (Carter, Welner, & Ladson-Billings, 2013; Lemann, 2000)

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It is clear that standardized tests had a very important impact on the development of the modern world, and allowed the economy and industry to grow as quickly as they did. However, the modern world has changed in ways that require much more from the students, and the evaluation systems need to change to reflect the emerging demand for creativeness, flexibility, innovation, in the same way it changed in the 19th century to accommodate the needs of Industrialization. Finally, the evaluation mechanisms need to reflect the shift towards integration of people with different skills, abilities, and needs.

It is inadvisable to completely abandon the standardized testing system, but it should be re-imagined to be used in greater moderation and in conjunction with methods like essays and projects.


Carter, P. L., Welner, K. G., & Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Closing the opportunity gap: What America must do to give every child an even chance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kelleghan, T., Madaus, G. F., & Airasian, P.W. (2012). The Effects of Standardized Testing. New York: Springer Science & Business.

Lemann, N. (2000). The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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