By Nichole Zhang
Over 15 years ago, President George W. Bush pushed through the No Child Left Behind policy. Soon afterward, standardized testing blazed a trail in education, leaving behind it a wake of tired students and stressed educators. In the classroom, teachers were forced to “teach to the test” when their salary was put on the line, while students who thought in non-standard ways struggled to demonstrate their proficiency in a subject. School administrators, unjustly blamed by many for this government-mandated test, were pressured into placing more emphasis on certain subjects and devaluing others. Standardized testing has created a culture and a world where the intelligence of children is judged based on multiple-choice scantrons, three minute stretch breaks, and number two pencils.
Standardized testing sends the degrading message to students that the wide expanse of human knowledge, learning, and intelligence can be measured and condensed into three mind-numbing hours of applying memorized formulas, searching for subjective answers to reading comprehension questions, and defining words they’ll never use in real life. It is dehumanizing and ineffective at its core, rewarding students who are good test takers and penalizing those who think creatively and critically, or who think differently than the test producers. Even open-ended response questions, which at first glance seem as if they involve greater amounts of individual thinking and creativity, are often graded by machines only looking for the correct format, grammar, and information. Standardized testing doesn’t measure the proficiency of a student on a particular subject, but rather their test-taking abilities.
Furthermore, standardized testing rewards wealthier students and punishes poorer students. Thousands of books with titles like Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT, 5 Steps to a 5: Calculus AB, and even Barron’s Core Focus: Grade 3 Test Practice for Common Core have been published and purchased around the world, giving an advantage to those with a higher socioeconomic status. In addition, threats of less funding prompt administrators to underscore what has been traditionally been called the three Rs of education — reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — over equally important subjects such as science, art, music, and foreign languages.
Moreover, standardized tests don’t accomplish their supposed goal of preparing students for their college and adult careers. In many school districts, a four hour final exam can be worth 20% of a student’s grade, holding the same weight as an entire quarter of learning and teacher evaluation. This undermines the value of nine weeks worth of late nights finishing projects and homework on the students’ side, and of later nights grading and planning on the teachers’ side. Tests also provide an artificial learning environment in which students aren’t allowed to communicate with one another, are discouraged from asking questions, and are scared to make noise.
Even beyond the average ten days of testing and two weeks of classroom preparation that could be much more productively spent, standardized tests can dictate the majority of a school year. An NEA study found that many teachers feel pressure from both school and district administrators to “teach to the test” to ensure high student scores. This finding leads to the conclusion that test manufacturers, many of which have never taught in schools, are dictating the composition of curriculums across the nation and indirectly shaping the adults students will become.
Supporters of standardized testing argue that it is an objective way to compare students, claiming that the grading systems of teachers are subjective and therefore inadequate. This argument is weakened by the fact that students will always be different kinds of thinkers and therefore will naturally express themselves differently. For example, a student might be a gifted orator but struggle with putting their thoughts on paper. Even though the student might know the material, they wouldn’t be able to demonstrate their proficiency and would be penalized for their natural weaknesses.
Our nation should allow students to demonstrate mastery using methods that are appropriate for them, and should trust teachers to evaluate their own students. The schools of nations with the best education systems emphasize not scores on standardized tests, but understanding individual students, closing achievement gaps, and holding teachers accountable. Students must be seen as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses, rather than score-producing statistics that can be manipulated for political purposes. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow and education is essential in determining who they will be. Globally, the culture must change so that standardized test scores no longer define the way we see student intelligence or potential.