How Standardized Tests are Failing Your Students

How Standardized Tests Are Failing Your Students
How Standardized Tests Are Failing Your Students

Academic Leadership//

February 1, 2022

With a Scantron test—multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble form scoring system common in standardized testing—and a sharpened No. 2 pencil in hand, what could go wrong for a student ready to demonstrate their knowledge on a standardized test? Quite a few things, according to education experts who believe that exams don’t successfully prove student mastery of a subject.

Society has long believed that standardized tests offer an objective measurement of education and a good metric to gauge areas for improvement—offering meaningful data to help students in marginalized groups. Further it has been understood that grades are good indicators of college and job success.

But according to a 2021 Center for American Progress report, standardized tests, (like the ACT or SAT), can be an effective comparative evaluation tool, but ineffective at measuring what society values—creativity, empathy, and problem-solving skills. While your students’ scores can be compared to other students in your region, state, and country, those numbers often do little to evaluate myriad qualities and abilities that determine future success.

What you practice, you improve. Therefore, standardized tests evaluate how well students take tests (and how well they’ve studied test-taking), not what they’ve learned. A high score doesn’t necessarily translate to deeper content knowledge.

Standardized tests cannot measure:

  • what students can create;
  • how students synthesize new information;
  • how students evaluate opposing viewpoints;
  • each student’s ability to learn;
  • and each student’s creativity, empathy, and critical thinking skills.

Exams also fail to provide feedback as to how schools are meeting their mission. Standardized tests do not reveal what a school values in its students and the effectiveness of its faculty’s teaching methods.

Standardized tests:

  • are created without the teacher’s knowledge and input;
  • rate and judge the test-taking abilities of the students;
  • do not provide data to improve the school’s learning environment;
  • and focus on memory and low-level application skills.

Consider your school’s Portrait of a Graduate. Perhaps you want your students to become global citizens who are innovative thinkers, effective communicators, creative problem-solvers, and lifelong learners. How do you create and administer assessments to evaluate student performance in these areas?

What Testing Tells Us

The purpose of testing is to measure learning. What evidence do you have that students have mastered the content that’s been presented? You need to collect data for what your students have achieved, but evaluations can be more than standardized tests.

Your assessment should include these three performance categories:

  1. Descriptive set of performances from students, including:
    1. surveys of student engagement;
    2. stories of what students did in class and what they learned from these activities;
    3. completed projects;
    4. and profiles of alumni who have achieved your purpose and outcome statement.
  1. Authentic examples of learning, such as:
    1. completed portfolios or products;
    2. live performances in front of internal and external audiences; and
  1. Average student performance compared to students in other schools; e.g., SAT and ACT scores.


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Not All Tests Are Created Equal

First, think outside the Scantron. Consider creative ways to allow students to show their knowledge of a subject. How would your classroom activities change if the final evaluation were not a standard assessment or a cumulative test?

Consider these seven alternatives to standardized tests:

  1. Defense of learning presentation: evidence = credit
  2. Single-point rubrics
  3. Narratives of experience and authentic audience
  4. Demonstrative assessment: “Show me what you know about …” Students tell a story, make a video, or create a piece of art. Now you have engagement in the learning experience, and the assessment becomes personal with a deep level of understanding.
  5. Share what they’ve learned with their classmates
  6. Assemble a portfolio similar to those used in art and other humanities
  7. Complete a service project

How Do Schools Achieve Parent Buy-In to Nonstandardized Testing?

Even change for the better often meets with resistance, so be sure to talk to your parents about the alternative testing methods you are using and explain their value. Show them all that their children are accomplishing by allowing them to share your students’ presentations, performances, and portfolios. Host evening on-campus events to showcase student achievements as you would for an art show or science fair.

Let the students’ work do the talking; build a reporting framework around what is happening in your classrooms. However, as you integrate new assessment tools into your program, be aware that your parents must fully understand the benefits of this change. Let your parents know that your shift away from traditional grading practices will be done in a thoughtful, gradual way.

Having a standardized assessment tool in your framework has value, but if you don’t provide other methods of evaluating learning, you have an incomplete picture of what students have achieved. Supplement testing with performance tasks that are authentic to your school and that reflect the talent, skills, and abilities of your students and their teachers.

What Admission Counselors Should Know About Standardized Testing

During the admission process, students are often asked to complete standardized testing to evaluate how they compare to others entering the same grade. Administrating the SSAT allows the admission team to assign a numerical score to each student.

However, many other assessment tools will provide a better view of applicants: teacher recommendations, family and child interviews, and a school visit. These reflective and interactive connections with student applicants will demonstrate how well a candidate aligns with your school’s values and mission.

Is the student collaborative and cooperative? Do they communicate easily and effectively? Do they have empathy for others? One way to step away from standard admission requirements is to ask students to write an essay on a topic unique to your school or provide examples of their favorite projects or best work.


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