Over the last 30 years, the use of standardized tests in American education has proliferated and shaped K-12 educational reform in ways few Americans in the 1980s would have predicted. By contrast, the use of standardized tests in college admissions has diminished as a controversial issue, with hundreds of higher education institutions adopting test-optional admissions since the 1980s.
The controversial charge that the SAT and ACT college admission tests exhibit cultural bias against African-Americans and members of other socially disadvantaged groups has receded as a national concern; however, the more recent advent of "high-stakes testing" has become a hot-button issue for millions of families.
"I think we can generally agree that standardized tests don't have a good reputation today--and that some of the criticism is merited," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last April during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). "Policymakers and researchers have to listen very carefully --and take very seriously the concerns of educators, parents, and students about assessment."
Duncans candor last year summed up the ambivalence Americans have developed towards the use of standardized tests. In 2012, a Gallup poll found that more Americans believed the No Child Left Behind federal law worsened education than improved it, by 29 percent to 16 percent. Thirty-eight percent said the law had not made any significant difference, while 17 percent indicated that they were not knowledgeable about the law to critique it or had no opinion.
Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools are required to give students annual reading and math tests in the third through eighth grades. The schools have to publish the results and disclose the scores of racial minorities, students with disabilities and low-income students. The law has also required all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Duncan acknowledges that the frequent testing in schools as a result of NCLB has come under widespread criticism. "The critics contend that today's tests fail to measure students' abilities to analyze and apply knowledge, that they narrow the curriculum, and that they create too many perverse incentives to cheat or teach to the test," Duncan told the AERA audience. "These critics want students and teachers to opt out of all high-stakes testing."
In addition, critics argue that poor and minority children attending low-resource schools have had a more narrow learning experience under NCLB, with their teachers spending more time on test preparation, math and reading compared to children attending more affluent schools.
"Teachers and schools are under more pressure to do test prep and shift instructional priorities in the case of disadvantaged and minority students than they are for majority students," says Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington.
Though Duncan has conceded that "schools today give lots of tests, sometimes too many," he defends the use of standardized tests, particularly the forthcoming assessments connected to the Common Core State Standards adopted in recent years by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
"Standardized assessments are still a needed tool for transparency and accountability across the entire education system," Duncan said. "We should never, ever return to the days of concealing achievement gaps with school averages, no-stakes tests, and low standards."
A nation at risk
Standardized tests became a K-12 education policy matter when a national educational reform movement took shape in the early 1980s; the issue culminated in 2002 with the passage of NCLB.
Under President Reagan, the federal government took a different approach in establishing national education priorities compared to past administrations. …