Continuing Tensions in Standardized Testing

By Haladyna, Thomas; Haas, Nancy et al. | Childhood Education, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Continuing Tensions in Standardized Testing


Haladyna, Thomas, Haas, Nancy, Allison, Jeanette, Childhood Education


Every spring, anxiety increases in American classrooms as teachers and students get ready for the "test."

Those test scores usually appear on the first page of the newspaper, building a sense of their importance. Students talk about taking the test. Legislators talk about the test scores. School board members either break out the champagne to celebrate high scores or blame the superintendent, who in turn blames the teachers, for low scores. Poor scores prompt editorial writers to lament the sorry state of schools, often criticizing the quality of teaching, as if nothing else contributed. Teachers question the usefulness of the test scores. What are the conditions behind these tests that summon such varied responses?

In this article, the authors examine the tensions resulting from the use of these test scores. Three interwoven themes provide a background for these tensions. The first theme is that mass education was a great social experiment, first tried in the United States in the mid 1800s. The nation sought not only to provide education opportunities to all of its citizens, but also to maintain efficiency in doing so. The second theme is that achievement tests always have been used by the public to evaluate educational progress. Policymakers, including state and national legislators and school boards, make policy decisions and allocate resources based on test scores. It stands to reason that large-scale standardized testing at the national, state and school district levels is likely to continue. The third theme is that U.S. schools have used tests to weed out students and eliminate them from further education opportunities, rather than using tests to identify problems in learning that need intervention. Amid this tension, many students are not being well served - in particular, those who live in poverty and/or lack the language skills necessary to succeed in school and in society. This article examines the roles that educators might play in the future of standardized testing.

A standardized achievement test is designed to provide norm-referenced interpretations of student achievement in specific content areas at certain points in their education careers. Norm-referenced interpretations are relative, showing how students compare with others in the nation.

Part One: A Brief History of Standardized Testing in the U.S.

The impetus for standardized tests emerged in the 1800s and has continued. Problems with standardized testing today are really not very different from old ones.

The Inception of Standardized Testing

The first documented achievement tests were administered in the period 1840 to 1875, when American educators changed their focus from educating the elite to educating the masses. Cremin (1964) pointed out that the earliest tests were intended for individual evaluation, but test results were inappropriately used to compare schools and children without regard for non-school influences. As millions of immigrants came to the United States in the 19th century, the standardized test became a way to ensure that all children were receiving the same standard of education. In fact, however, test results were often used to emphasize the need for school reform (Office of Technology Assessment, 1992).

Ability (Intelligence) Testing

At the turn of the century, the focus shifted from achievement testing to ability testing for the purpose of sorting and classifying students. Schools wanted to identify and weed out students who were not going to succeed academically. Consequently, many ethnic groups new to the United States faced discrimination on the basis of new "intelligence" tests, such as the Binet Intelligence Scale.

In 1922, Walter Lippmann wrote a series of articles in the New Republic protesting the misuse of standardized ability tests, which echo the protests of current critics. Lippman characterized intelligence tests as

"[a] gross perversion by muddlehead and prejudiced men. …

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