Standardized testing explained, why it’s controversial, and solutions

Standardized testing in schools has been a topic of great debate in recent years. Parents, educators, and other adults involved in American children’s education have raised questions and doubts regarding how beneficial these tests truly are to their children’s growth and educational development. Opinions vary: some adults see the tests as mere tools for state compliance with federal rules, while others view them as crucial tools for assessing students’ progress and implementing effective reforms.


What are Standardized Tests?


By definition, standardized tests are “any tests that are administered, scored, and interpreted in a standard, predetermined manner.” In other words, these are tests that are graded in one way across all areas where they are being administered, whether that be scanning an answer document of multiple-choice questions through a machine, or grading all free-response questions according to one standardized rubric.

There are multiple different types of these tests, and they have various usages too. The tests that have fostered the most debate recently are the ones funded by state governments and administered by local education/testing agencies to students in grades 3-12. Although each state has its own unique test with questions made by different people from state to state, they all assess the same fundamental academic concepts. For example, students in Texas take the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), while students in Iowa take the ISASP—(Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress).


Why Standardized Tests?


State governments are interested in data from standardized tests for multiple reasons.

Student Assessment


Arguably the biggest reason governments implement standardized tests is to assess student performance and development. It would be very difficult and time-consuming for them to gather data from each individual city, region, school district, etc and even more challenging to organize and analyze that data. Data from state-administered standardized tests eliminates this problem and enables the government to be efficient with their analyses instead of having to “individualize” everything.

In addition, these tests can highlight achievement gaps between and within various student groups distinguished by race, economic status, disabilities, and other factors. Government officials can work to implement hands-on procedures to help those students in “less achieving” groups to perform better academically. For example, this could come in the form of providing those students with extra classes with a personal tutor embedded into their school day or getting them access to additional practice/study material to help them succeed.


Instructional Improvements


Governments are able to use data from standardized tests to compare and contrast schools across the state regarding how well students are progressing and achieving in various subjects. This allows them to facilitate curricula changes to help try to level the playing field for students from school to school.

Not only within one state, but governments can compare and contrast data from their local students to data from other states, see what disparities are present, and make changes to act on them. For example, students in California might score better on science questions about earthquakes than students in North Dakota, because Californian students have background or “natural” knowledge about the topic due to the state having one of the highest frequencies of earthquakes in the country, unlike North Dakota. To act on this, government officials in North Dakota might work to add more instruction about earthquakes into their science curricula.


Professional Development


Governments also use data from these tests to identify areas where teachers may need additional support or training. Ultimately, if students in an area are scoring poorly in a certain subject or educational field, a contributory factor may be the teacher and how the material is being presented to those students. Thus, data can help government officials decide how they can improve instruction, whether it be requiring districts to have mandatory training days or implementing proven teaching techniques in struggling schools.


Opposition to Standardized Tests


On the other hand, some adults involved in students’ education have begun raising doubts over the necessity and benefit of these standardized tests. They argue that the tests are unfair assessments of their children and do not adequately reflect their strengths and weaknesses. They argue that the way these tests are used on regional and national levels are unreasonable as well.


Inaccurate and Unfair Student Assessment


Standardized tests often have very narrow testing content. Tests predominantly cover math and reading, and sprinkle in content on science and social studies once in a while, almost always completely eliminating arts or language content. Parents and educators argue that students’ academic abilities are diverse and span a wide range of concepts. Thus, restricting them to very few subjects—and even fewer sub-topics in those subjects—is very unfair.

Not only does this come down to the content that it is given, but also how the content is given. The most common question types in these tests are multiple-choice, often following the same format too (“which of the following…,” “which answer choice best describes…,” etc.). However, many students may not be good at answering those kinds of questions simply due to the fact that all of their brains do not work the same. Students have different analyzing and processing capabilities, thus they may actually be proficient in the content being presented, it is just the way the questions are posed that yields low scores.


Top view on young people learning foreign language together on a project around a table with a laptop and notebooks in a teamwork concept, colored vector illustration.
Top view on young people learning a foreign language together on a project around a table with a laptop and notebooks in a teamwork concept, colored vector illustration. Image: Adobe Stock.

“Teaching to the Test”


“Teaching to the test” is a common phrase concerned adults (and older students for that matter) have been using recently to voice another concern of theirs: the presence of these tests pressures teachers to focus their lessons on test preparation rather than deeper education based on what the students actually need. Teachers have to follow state-mandated curricula without changes, even if students require extra help on certain concepts, due to concerns about dropping test scores. Parents are also concerned about this because they send their children to school to expand their knowledge, but this method seems to be restricting it instead. As a result, the educational system risks producing students who excel in test-taking but lack critical thinking skills and creativity.




Another big concern of parents and educators is how the results of these tests are being used. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December 2015, the federal government requires state governments to administer standardized tests in order to receive funding. If states do not comply with the standardized testing requirements, they risk losing funding. Essentially, parents are concerned that their children’s access to proper education and schooling all comes down to them taking poorly assessed tests that they spend all year preparing for. They would much rather have their children learn beneficial concepts that expand on their knowledge, grow their minds, constructively challenge them, and cultivate their intelligence. Thus, depending on test scores for funding puts schools in a tough spot, where they might sacrifice teaching quality just to keep their budgets.




As shown, both sides of the argument make solid points, making it difficult for government officials who make these decisions to choose a side. However, this debate doesn’t have to end in a stalemate, there are workarounds and solutions that could potentially satisfy both sides. For example:

Question Type Changes

As mentioned earlier, often students are actually proficient in the concept they are being tested on, just the way the questions are posed throws them off. Thus, test designers can brainstorm and implement other question types into those tests to benefit students who have diverse strengths and weaknesses. For example, most state-administered standardized tests are equipped with only the standard multiple-choice questions (MCQs) which a good chunk of students, though spending much of the school year studying how to answer, struggle with. To combat this, test designers can also implement other question types, like free-response questions. This would allow for students to showcase their true intelligence in a more authentic way, rather than the state’s perception of their intelligence being skewed because they are not very skilled in answering MCQs.


Moving Testing Dates


Most standardized tests nationwide are administered at the end of the year, thus teachers center their lesson plans for the entire year on preparing for that test. This eliminates space for deeper learning. To combat this, states can administer their tests in the middle of the year,  favorably after the first semester (around December time), allowing schools and teachers to use the rest of the year to teach their students other lessons. These lessons would still cover the same state-required concepts, topics, and subjects, but teachers could adjust them to meet their students’ needs, focusing on areas where students need more help. This would be beneficial to students’ learning, and allow space for more creativity—both academically and artistically—as teachers would be able to add in more diverse and unique lesson plans, focusing on more than just test prep.


Alternate Assessment Methods


If governments’ goals are to obtain data regarding their students’ performances, why not use data from their daily work in school? Instead of using standardized test results, governments could obtain data from projects, daily grades, progress checks, and other work “administered” locally by schools and teachers to assess students. Although it may seem arduous and time-consuming to officials, they may have to accept that they need to be more active parts of students’ education and use more authentic data, rather than what may be the most convenient. A child’s true academic performance is best assessed by their performance on assignments, projects, and other work assigned by teachers who see their progress daily and evaluate their understanding rather than their test-taking abilities.

This data does not have to be as arduous as it seems though. Governments can decide on which exact data they want—like grades from a certain marking period—and ask schools, or even districts for that matter, to submit it to their respective cities, who then submit their data to the state. This would enable more authentic data regarding student performance to be generated and would probably allow for more valuable reforms and policies to be implemented.




In conclusion, standardized testing has been a topic of immense debate and discussion in recent years, with parents, educators, and other advocates of childrens’ education fighting to either keep them or remove them from school curricula. Governments need data about their students’ progress and performance, but people argue that states’ continuous administration of these tests is jeopardizing student education. Workarounds and solutions have been posed and debated, but it is up to the leaders and officials to decide whether or not standardized testing is needed or if it has long gone out of date.



  1. Bianco, William. “Government-Mandated Standardized Tests for Schools.” Policy vs Politics, 26 Dec. 2023,
  2. Cassada, Kate. “Standardized Tests Fill K-12 Schools. What Purpose Do They Serve?” Forbes, 21 Oct. 2023, Accessed 12 June 2024.
  3. “History of Standardized Tests.”, 28 Feb. 2024,



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