The problems with standardized testing


Standardized tests have become the subject of much controversy lately due to what they actually measure, and what they don’t.

I often find myself sitting in class, wondering when whatever I am learning is actually going to benefit me in today’s day and age. The truth is, whatever it is I am being “taught,” it might not benefit me. The turn of the century has greatly modified the expectations of future employers, leading to this concept of “twenty-first century learning.”

Unfortunately, the definition of twenty-first century learning has been skewed. Sometimes a projector and a laptop will be brought out, and the lesson is perceived to be a whole new learning experience, even though we students are simply drooling on our desks staring at the clock.

The actual definition of twenty-first century learning, according to 21st Century Schools, is the instruction of critical thinking or how to go about solving a problem. It once occurred to me that what I was being taught might not prepare me for anything, until it dawned on me that they were preparing me for some standardized test or other, and everything made sense. For about two minutes.

Then I began to wonder — what exactly does a standardized test stand for? My grade only reflects the five hours I spent studying for the exam the night before. In retrospect, I probably remember no more than a third of those five hours I sat mindlessly memorizing.

What schools need to teach is how to think while confronted with challenging situations, to create the most efficient solution to the problem we are faced with, when we are faced with it. The only way what we are taught can possibly benefit us is if we understand how to apply it to the real world, no matter how many times we are tested on it. If whatever we are being taught only benefits our test scores, we should not be learning it.

But what makes those tests different from other things that I have done that required some form of learning? The difference is the purpose behind my learning. The question I have begun to ask is what am I learning this information for? Sometimes I am simply learning it for some test I have next Friday only to scrap that information for some other batch of facts that have been thrust at my begrudging brain. Other times, I am learning something I have genuine interest in, or something I deem useful, something that will open up a whole new part of my brain, enabling me to retain that knowledge more easily.

Standardized tests have led to a whole new perception for the word intelligent. The perception that those of us who have the capacity to memorize freakish amounts of information the night before an exam are the smartest. Don’t get me wrong; these kids are definitely capable of high level thinking. But what use is the skill of memorization when faced with a problem that can’t be solved simply by remembering Aaron Burr defeated Alexander Hamilton in a duel in the year 1804?

Our parents have been telling us for years that we are all special. It seems rather ironic that we should all have to take the same tests, asking the same information, regardless of what our strengths or plans for the future are. And it never fails: Our parents seem inclined to ask us how the rest of the class did or more specifically the kids that we have already described to our parents as being geniuses, all while we have been struggling in the class.

Another problem with standardized tests is that the goal for the student upon graduation is lost. Educators have begun instructing students in a way that raises test scores, not in a way that best enables the student to learn. A teacher’s effectiveness should not simply be rated based on the scores obtained by their students on some exam. That begs to question what was sacrificed from the actual learning process, just so students could score better on a test.

Besides, why should a teacher’s effectiveness be rated by a test their students take? Shouldn’t we trust them? Aren’t teachers supposed to be professionals tasked with instructing their students?

In Finland, the only standardized test their students take is the matriculation exam for college, and the scores are very competitive. Why don’t these teachers have their effectiveness rated based on the test scores of their students until the end? Because Finnish teachers have the credentials to be trusted with ensuring their students become successful in contributing to society. The requirements to become a teacher in Finland are extensive, consisting of five years of rigorous study resulting in a masters degree. Through these five years, teachers learn how to deal with all kinds of learners, in order to optimise the potential of each of their students. According to Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at NYU,  the “secret” behind the Finnish school system’s success is the parent’s trust in the teacher’s abilities. In Finland, they don’t need test scores to register the effectiveness of the teachers; it is a given that the teachers are doing the job they are paid to do.

Standardized tests started as a simple measure of memory and have turned into the measure of intelligence. Years ago, the intelligence of a subject such as a prospective employee was judged simply by the IQ score. The perception of modern day standardized tests is as flawed as IQ tests were back then: neither measure the full scope of a subject’s intelligence, knowledge, character or ability to learn.



  1. Mostly I agree, but it really depends on how you define “intelligence”, the most accepted scientific version of intelligence has to do with a general ability to understand things and to adapt, there is a general consensus that IQ tests do measure how quickly you learn a concept. Some of these standardized tests sometimes involve general knowledge, but IQ tests are different from some of these tests that are called “standardized”, because the IQ tests try not to test general knowledge, but rather problem-solving and pattern-seeking.


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