Standardized testing- any test scored and administered in a consistent manner- has been one of the root causes for anxiety throughout my educational career. It started in elementary school, where I needed to get all distinguished on the CATS test in order to feel like I was reasonably smart, and then it was on to middle school, where higher scores equaled higher level classes and thus more opportunities in high school. Now I am in high school, and when I think about standardized testing, my head hurts, and my stomach is filled not with butterflies but stampeding elephants, trumpeting that I need a 36 on my ACT to be good enough, that I must score well on the PSAT to get a scholarship for college, that I am not an adequate human if my AP scores aren’t fives across the board. I strongly believe that standardized testing ineffectively contributes towards improving instruction and performance.
I have personally experienced the trauma that comes with standardized testing- the crippling anxiety coupled with the deep-rooted fear that I will never measure up to be good enough. Honestly, I would love to believe that I am more than just a number, but the extremely competitive era we live in, an era that thrives off of test scores, tells me that no, I am a number, and that number better be pretty darn high if I plan on getting into college and getting a decent job. Hours upon hours of my life have been spent studying for the ACT, PSAT, SAT, AP tests etc. From this experience, I have gained a few valuable insights into the problems caused by high-stakes standardized testing. Most importantly, that it puts a huge amount of pressure on students to perform well, and this results in stress anxiety. According to psychologist Nicky Hayes, testing can result in “disturbed sleep patterns, tiredness, worry, irregular eating habits, increased infections, inability to concentrate, decreased memory capacity, and even fear.” The National Center for Fair and Open Testing furthered that this test anxiety results in emotional damage, a loss of interest in school, lowered self-esteem, increased drop-out rates, and even lower test scores by up to 12 percent. Clearly, student performance is reduced due to standardized testing.
Coming from a family of teachers and lovers of all things education-oriented, it hurts me a little bit inside to say that standardized testing undermines creativity narrows and narrows the scope of learning for students. However, this is unavoidably true, because the higher the stakes of testing, the more teachers “teach to the test”, as schools are often held accountable for scores and punished if they are not performing at a high enough level. The strange and unfortunate resulting paradigm is that schools focus even more on low-level test-taking skills rather than actual mastery of material, and fall even further behind intellectually. After all, one cannot test the skills that truly matter: researching, analyzing the curiosities of nature, constructing meaning from experience, being financially independent, musically or artistically gifted, and curious. Thus, these creative skills are not focused on and sometimes not even offered at schools. A 2006 study by The Center on Education Policy found that since 2002, 71 percent of school districts cut back on subjects like history and music so they could spend more time on the tested subjects. Author and professor Todd Gitlin stated that one cannot help but notice “how students of all stripes arrive at college with shallow and scattered educations… A strong liberal-arts curriculum could teach them about their history, their social condition, themselves.” However, students learn to put their worth in test scores rather than focus on the love of knowledge, the beauty of fine arts, and the pursuit of individuality. In addition, teaching to the test causes a negative classroom climate and narrowed “cookie-cutter” curriculum that turns many students off. As Emerson so eloquently stated, “Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do.” Due to all these factors, instruction is in no way improved due to standardized testing.
It is essential that one of the biggest flaws of standardized testing not be overlooked, which is that it hurts poor and minority students. Schools often feel so pressured to have high test scores that low-performing students are encouraged to drop out. A 2010 report from the civil rights organization Advancement Project found that “the practice of pushing struggling students out of schools to boost test scores has become quite common”. Many students in underprivileged areas that already suffer from poor housing, nutrition, and family situations often attend disadvantaged schools that cannot provide the teachers, materials, libraries, and laboratories necessary for adequate learning. In addition, students who have learning disabilities, attention disorders, and do not speak English as a first language all struggle to perform well on standardized tests, further widening the gap between a future of opportunity and mediocrity. There is also a disproportionate number of minority students failing to pass graduation exams, being held back due to test scores, and performing at an overall lower level than their peers. The No Child Left Behind Act passed by President Bush in 2002 ushered in an era that sought to use standardized testing to even out the playing field for minorities and socially disadvantaged students, yet all it has done is punish them for things they cannot control, and the educational disparities continue to grow. The best thing we could do to even out the playing field is to reduce the number of high stakes testing, or even altogether abolish it.
Standardized testing is genuinely hurting schools, teachers, and most importantly, student progress. The test anxiety that students experience hurts their performance and emotional health, teaching to the test is causing narrowed and distorted curriculum that discourages individuality, and certain types of students are being unfairly hurt by a system designed to protect them. It is my hope, as I pause to write this piece between ACT study sessions, that Americans will begin to realize the dangers of high stakes testing and push for a type of reform that will encourage students to pursue knowledge simply because it is beautiful and powerful.