Standardized Tests: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly

Standardized testing is one of the most passionately debated education topics in America. As a veteran teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience in Missouri and Florida, I say with confidence, my fellow teachers and I are not afraid of evaluation based in part on our students’ performance.

Our purpose is to ensure that our students are successful in school and life. However, we object to the thought that students’ performance on a single test alone is a valid measure of what they have learned or how well we have taught them.

As teachers, we are more worried about the impact of standardized testing on our students than on ourselves. Therefore, an honest look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of standardized testing is necessary.

The Good

Standardized testing provides a standards-based way of assessing students and teachers. In our transient society, consistency across the state and country is growing more important. Common standards help ensure consistency.

The Bad

Standardized tests used in isolation are not the best evidence of performance. Some students are brilliant thinkers, but poor test takers. Given the opportunity to show what they know in a hands-on manner, many students who fail traditional tests could demonstrate they indeed have mastered the concepts.

Likewise, factors beyond anyone’s control, that have nothing to do with student or teacher mastery, intervene when an evaluation is based on a single test given in a very small testing window once a year.

Furthermore, since standardized tests are becoming the norm for all classes, students are being pulled out of instructional time to take tests more each year. At my school, students are involved in standardized testing from the first week of April to the last week of May. Not to mention that the mandatory testing window for some of our End of Course (EOC) Exams is six to eight weeks before the courses end!

The Ugly

School-wide test scores

Many teachers’ evaluations are based on the scores of students they have never had in class and on tests covering content they do not teach. A Florida 11th and 12th grade high school teacher who exclusively teaches a course without a state test, may be given the school average on the 10th grade reading test as her student performance, which is half of her evaluation. This certainly is not in the spirit of teacher evaluation reform.

What's even more important is when elevated to the high-stakes level as many tests now are, a competent student can be denied a diploma solely due to performance on a single test in a plethora of graduation requirements.

Students not present in school during the limited testing window, or students who are present but have something major interfering with their ability to focus, may miss or not perform well on their one shot at the test that year.

For example, a student missed a state test because he had to have back surgery. Because the pencil/paper version of the test is available only for students who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), the computer based version can only be taken on-site and this student had no way of getting an IEP finalized before the cut off for the exception. Therefore, he was unable to take the test and will not get another opportunity until months after he has received any instruction in the content.

Test scores

Finally, every student must not only have basic understanding of required content areas, but in many states, they must score at the proficient level on standardized tests in every core area.

For example, to get a basic Florida high school diploma, students must pass the state reading test, Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, biology, U.S. History and chemistry or physics. For many of these classes, students who pass the class, but not the standardized EOC, receive no credit for the class and will not graduate until they do pass the exam even if they have to retake it months after they have taken the class.

Standardized testing does have some benefits.  However, until some of these life-altering effects can be mitigated, caution should be used when making mandates about how it is used.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Why So Many People Say ‘Enough is Enough’ to High-Stakes Testing

• Is It Time We Threw Standardized Testing Out the Door?

• The Key to ‘How Children Succeed’: Hint...It’s Not Standardized Tests

Mella Baxter is the Reading Coach at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast, Florida and a 2013 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.