Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Standardized testing has not improved student achievement.
Years after The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed in 2002, the US slipped globally from 18th to 31st place in math on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009, with a similar drop in science and no change in reading. On May 26, 2001, a study done by the National Research Council found no evidence that test-based incentive programs were working: "Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education."
Standardized tests are an unreliable measure of student performance. A study published by the Brookings Institution found that 50-80% of year-over-year test score improvements were temporary and "caused by fluctuations that had nothing to do with long-term changes in learning" (Olson, 2001). Even former First Lady Michelle Obama, a Princeton University alumna, has admitted that she struggled with standardized testing. "Don't let those tests define you," She once told a group of students.
Standardized tests are unfair and discriminatory against non-English speakers and students with special needs. English language learners take tests in English before they have mastered the language. Special education students take the same tests as other children, receiving few of the accommodations usually provided to them as part of their Individualized Education Plans (IEP).
The use of test scores to reward and punish teachers and schools encourages them to cheat the system for their own gain. A 2011 USA Today investigation of six states and Washington DC found 1,610 suspicious anomalies in year-over-year test score gains. A confidential Jan. 2009 memo, prepared for the DC school system by an outside analyst and uncovered in Apr. 2013, revealed that 191 teachers in 70 DC public schools were "implicated in possible testing infractions," and nearly all the teachers at one DC elementary school "had students whose test papers showed high numbers of wrong-to-right erasures" (Toppo, 2013). 178 Atlanta public school teachers and administrators from 44 schools were found to be cheating on standardized tests according to a July 2011 state report. According to ABC News, at one school in Atlanta, Georgia, teachers even attended "weekend pizza parties" to correct students' answers (Forer, Osunsami, 2011). Ultimately in Apr. 2015, 11 of those district employees were convicted of 'racketeering', which is dishonest and fraudulent business dealings, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Standardized tests measure only a small portion of what makes education meaningful. According to late education researcher Gerald W. Bracey, PhD, qualities that standardized tests cannot measure include "creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, [and] integrity" — in other words, all the things that matter.
Lynn Olson, “Study Questions Reliability of Single-Year Test-Score Gains,” Education Week, May 23, 2001
Greg Toppo, “Memo Warns of Rampant Cheating in D.C. Public Schools,” usatoday.com, Apr. 11, 2013
Steve Osunsami and Ben Forer, “Atlanta Cheating: 178 Teachers and Administrators Changed Answers to Increase Test Scores,” abcnews.go.com, July 6, 2011