An Introduction to Standardized Tests

For years there was a pressing problem: How do you compare graduates of different schools? While some high schools were extremely rigorous, others were comparatively lax. Did top-ranked students at lax schools have unfair advantages over middle-ranked students at rigorous schools? Did an “A” from one school equal an “A” from its crosstown rival? And, perhaps most pressingly, how could you tell whether students were really learning the important stuff? Were graduates prepared for the next step in life, or had they simply been goofing off while good grades flowed endlessly? Standardized tests were created to solve these dilemmas.

Modern standardized testing began in the United States during the early 20th century. World War I and the need to evaluation masses of young men for military service led to the creation of standardized tests that would test knowledge and aptitude separately from men’s high school or college credentials. Ivy League gentlemen and blue-collar laborers took the same tests and had equal opportunities to show their mental aptitudes.

Standardized testing really caught on during World War II, when an even greater need for military training saw the creation of the GED, or General Education Development, program in November 1942, reports The GED test was a substitute for a high school diploma, and its completion meant that a young man was highly trainable for military service. Quickly, standardized tests caught on in the civilian world as well: Colleges and universities began using the SAT and ACT tests to determine the academic aptitudes of applicants. This was seen a boon of meritocracy, for finally the poor student with no political connections could compete on equal ground with wealthy, well-connected students. A hardworking student from a poor family could out-score a rich kid on a standardized test and earn a ticket to a good college.

However, as the number of available standardized tests increased the debates over their reliability and validity in revealing student aptitude. According to Diane Ravitch, the College Board admitted in 1975 that SAT scores had been declining since the early 1960s, raising questions about academic rigor in America’s high schools. By the early 1980s, in response to news of falling SAT scores, almost 40 states had begun instituting standardized tests within school curricula itself to make sure students were sufficiently learning the material. Today, virtually every school district in the nation uses standardized tests to gauge student (and teacher) performance in multiple subject areas.

This has itself created controversy. Many teachers, parents, observers, and students feel that the increasing number of standardized tests are harming education. They complain that a narrowing focus on standardized test performance results in “teaching to the test” and rote memorization rather than critical thinking. Essentially, instead of getting a well-rounded education American students now getting a boring, multiple-choice education focused on test-taking rather than mental stimulation. Teachers, especially, loathe the controversial practice in some school districts of linking teacher pay and bonuses to standardized test scores. Instead of improving teaching, these critics insist, such test-linked “merit pay” only leads to “kill-and-drill” teaching, cheating on tests by both students and teachers, and attempts to “stack the deck” in classrooms by replacing lower-performing pupils with higher-performing pupils.

Now there is a backlash against the last 30 years of increasing standardized testing, with Texas recently voting to decrease the number of required standardized tests. Until May 2013 high schoolers in Texas had to pass 15 standardized tests to graduate; new legislation cuts that number to five, reports the Huffington Post.