The “Testing Regime” in American Public Schools

How an increase in standardized testing since NCLB has affected the quality of public education

Published 9 months ago in North America and Opinion


(Source: The New Republic)

Greatly simplified, the primary goals of education are to instill students with knowledge across a variety of disciplines and aid them in building a skill set to think critically, problem solve, and succeed in any chosen occupation. As with any goals, there must be a way to measure if people are actually achieving them, as without such measurements, goals are bound to fade into the background of a less focused educational system. Herein lies the great debate on measurements of student success. There is little disagreement on the fact that such measurements must exist, as they keep both teachers and students accountable, but there is much contention in the academic community and amongst ordinary, yet concerned, citizens on which measurements to use and the efficacy of the ones currently in place. 

Arguably, I believe the most common measurements of success are the highly controversial standardized tests. The sheer number of standardized tests that exist, ranging from the SATs to the ACTs to the PARCC, coupled with their ubiquitous nature in our nation’s school system today, speaks to the significance of discussing the values and disadvantages of utilizing such exams as measurements of accountability and success.

Our current moment in education does not reflect the normal use of standardized testing that has existed for centuries. Instead, we are now a part of a “testing regime” which began with the No Child Left Behind Act, implemented by the Bush administration in 2001. The act placed a stipulation on school funding that requires all states receiving funding to test students annually and allows the government to inflict penalties on schools that fall below certain score requirements. The NCLB is in itself a controversial piece of legislation, for the gap between intent and outcome is quite large. It was designed to increase accountability and higher academic standards, but many possess disdain for the act and its contribution to the data empire that currently fuels our education system.

Perhaps the biggest critique of standardized testing is the pressure it places on teachers to “teach to the test.” Because the stakes of these tests are so high, alluding to funding for the school district and evaluation of teacher competency, securing positive results on the tests are prioritized over true student learning. Many public school teachers must spend less time on subjects that are not on state tests. A study conducted by the Center on Education Policy in 2007 found that 44% of districts reduced time for science, social studies, arts, music, and physical education because the NLCB placed such a strong emphasis on reading and mathematics. This type of limited learning can be extremely dangerous in achieving all the goals of education, creating well-rounded students with a wide knowledge base. In addition, learning simply to pass a test is not conducive to deep and lasting knowledge. Teachers are pressured to meet a deadline for the assessment, as some states can impose such severe penalties as firing teachers whose students do not perform well on the assessments, so they rush through topics, only covering the very basics that will be tested. Students are then highly unlikely to retain the majority of information they have been taught throughout the school year, as they simply memorized it to get the score, but do not have an appreciation for nor extensive understanding of the subject matter. 

If American schools are being harmed by an institution meant to help them, legislators must consider serious reevaluation of the “testing regime” currently in place. The plague of limited learning associated with standardized testing is multifaceted. One of the roots of this issue is the way in which standardized testing has changed the nature of teaching and responsibility of teachers. Increasing the number of standardized tests administered also increases the amount of institutional tasks for teachers, such as collecting and analyzing test data and administering practice tests to prepare their students. As such, teachers have less time to devote to classroom planning and instruction; in fact, a study found that teachers lose between 60 and 110 instructional hours due to testing and its associated responsibilities. In this respect, the standardized testing requirements setting out to measure student learning and achievement may be undermining teachers’ abilities to produce such feats.

Another manner in which the increased practice of standardized testing contributes to limited student learning is through the narrowing of curriculum. Because education is traditionally a state-controlled issue, curricula historically differs across states. However, standardized tests are designed to be administered to the whole nation, and as such, there can often be a mismatch between what is taught in the classroom to what is tested. In his journal article, “Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality,” W. James Popham also describes a study conducted at Michigan State University that revealed that between 50 and 80 percent of material that was on standardized tests was not adequately covered by textbooks used in grades 4-6. To account for this gap and raise achievement on standardized tests, many states and localities have adopted new curricula that more pointedly focuses on material that is guaranteed to be covered on standardized tests. 

The subject of language arts, including both reading and writing, has been most deeply impacted by the changes in curriculum necessary to prepare students for these tests. Teachers of this subject are forced to only teach and practice literacy skills that will be tested on the exams, such as comprehension, instead of delving deeper into higher-level critical thinking exercises associated with literature. This not only limits the scope of reading skills for all students, but may inhibit students with a true passion for literature from realizing and pursuing it, as they are only exposed to “tested” materials. In addition to reading constraints imposed by standardized tests, only specific types of writing are tested, and thus teachers are limited to which styles they teach in the classroom. Because of these types of exams, teachers spend less time focusing on writing compositions, preventing students from learning the complex and vital skills of drafting long-form writing pieces. This, in turn, makes students less prepared for higher levels of education and a majority of occupations which require advanced writing skills.

Overall, the proliferation of high-stakes testing in recent decades has greatly altered the course of the American education system. While the intentions behind and proposed goals for annual standardized testing set out by the No Child Left Behind Act are well thought out and seemingly beneficial to the future of our students and our nation, the intent has not matched the outcome. High-stakes standardized testing has been detrimental to the quality of student learning due to the new roles of teachers and more narrow curriculum. Teachers can no longer be solely focused on the needs of individual students and deep learning for an entire classroom, but rather must consider the measurements of success and structure teaching methods accordingly. This often leads to a less engaging, more data-focused learning experience for students, and less meaningful work for teachers, putting the future of public schools and depth of student learning is in jeopardy.