Tuesday, November 17, 2015

PF Dec 2015 - Standardized Tests are Beneficial - Con Position

Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.

For part 1 of this analysis, click here.

Con Position

This Con side of this topic, on face, seems to enjoy a bit of an advantage. For that reason, I spent a great deal of time addressing the Pro side.  I believe, there is a pre-existing bias in the community against standardized testing or more generally against too much involvement by government in the daily lives of individuals. Since PF judges are members of the community Con should be happy. Nevertheless, Con does need to do more than sit back and watch Pro struggle to convince a parent judge or possible teacher that government mandated, standardized testing is beneficial to education. Con still needs to advocate a position. In order to promote an appropriate position, I will address a few key points and leave the remaining research to you.

We begin with a broad swipe at the premise of standardized testing.

Gawthrop 2014:
By definition, a standardized test is a one-size fits all sort of thing, but that does not work in a system with widely varying curriculums. A test cannot offer questions that are perfectly aligned with all the different curriculums, in every school, in the United States. Even if a common curriculum were to be implemented (as Common Core is attempting to do), where every state and school had the same curriculum, that still does not mean that it would be the best curriculum for every student, or that those students would learn that curriculum at the same speed. There would still be wide variations between schools and standardized test results would remain unable to provide a complete picture of student performance.[18]

With that we will look specifically at several major contentions, specifically; the narrowing of the curriculum, how administrators stack the deck, the negative effects upon student self-image, the impact on minorities and the impact upon non-targeted students.

Narrowing the Curriculum

This argument is based upon the fact that government mandated, standardized tests have high-stakes implications for school systems since ultimately, the availability of funding is often linked to good test outcomes.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There is consistency in the research which implies that standardized testing has a negative impact on classroom instruction. One finding across several studies was that a greater amount of time was spent on instruction in the subject areas that were tested. Most of teachers’ time was spent on reading and math to the exclusion of other content areas such as history or science (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003; Diamond, 2007; Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). [5]

While, in general it may seem good to focus on certain areas of study which may be deemed 'weak' by government standards, there are only so many hours of in-class time.  The hours allowed to education are a kind of zero-sum quantity which means, more hours spent on topics like math or science means fewer hours available to things like social studies, art, music and similar non-target study areas.

Kok-Devries 2011:
Furthermore, teachers reported that a large amount of class time was spent on test preparation. Several teachers reported they narrowed the scope of the curriculum to prepare students for standardized testing. At times, instruction was abandoned completely and prepared practice tests were given to students (Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000).[5]

Further to the idea that class-time is a zero-sum quantity, a report by the National Council of Teachers of English makes the claim that teachers can lose between 60 and 110 hours per year on test related administrative tasks (NCTE 2014).  These kinds of duties produce an added burden which consumes time that could be better spent getting on with the business of teaching students.

Gaming the System

Another negative impact of standardized tests is their effect on administrative approaches to education. Part of the mission of school systems is to produce better citizens even if it is not always possible to bring every student up to a mandated level of scholastic achievement. The pressures of high-stakes tests can force administrators into adopting educational strategies which enhance their test system rankings rather than enhance the educational benefits of the students.

Schul 2011:
High-stakes testing not only has dramatic curricular effects, but there's also reason to believe that it diverts the attention of school leadership from the educative mission of the public school experience. Rather than focusing upon ways to provide a quality civic apprenticeship for students, school administrators across the nation have been distracted by the need to avoid the bite of NCLB's high-stakes accountability requirements through what have been coined within the circle of education policy makers as "gaming strategies." One such gaming strategy that school districts have used to meet NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements is exemption of students deemed as likely to struggle with taking the test. Exemption of this sort typically means placing students in special education where their test scores aren't included in the school's AYP data. Because the schools are more likely to exclude students who are low-performing on high stakes-tests, minorities and the economically disadvantaged are once again neglected by the system (Booher-Jennings and Beveridge, 2008). Ironically, with districts using such gaming strategies, NCLB ends up hurting the very students it intended to help.[2]

Musoleno and White also note the propensity of school systems to "game", the system in order to live up to government mandated standards.  This gaming strategies have a wide range impacts which over-limits the ability of instructors to offer broad educational benefits.

Musoleno & White 2010:
In another discussion on standardized tests, Bracey (2009) asserted, “Schools under the gun to raise test scores increasingly rely on strategies that get immediate, but short-lived, results” (p. 34). This tendency is further supported by those noting a shift in instructional tendency to incorporate test-taking skills. “Schools participate in gaming strategies to avoid adverse consequences, and teachers reshape instructional activities to mirror standardized tests” (Valli, Croninger, Chambliss, Graeber, & Buese, 2008, p. 51). Thus, NCLB has noticeably impacted educators’ content coverage and the use of instructional time. [2]

Categorical Damage

With the claim that schools are more likely to exempt low-performing students from high-stakes tests (Schul 2011:2) we see another major problem inherent in standardized testing. Not only do they provide a means to measure the performance of classes, schools, districts and state educational systems we must not lose sight of the fact they ultimately measure the performance of individual students. Students are highly-pressured by the requirement to do well on tests and suffer psychological effects when they fail to meet the standard.  As we have seen in the preceding discussion, administrators may categorize students according to the performance level on standardized tests and a student who knows he is considered an "underachiever" may be more prone to not try to attain higher levels of achievement.

Gawthrop 2014:
The price and efficiency of using standardized testing, to accumulate vast amounts of information, is quite appealing to administrators, who require such information to make policy decisions. Standardized tests have been increasingly used, “to make major decisions about students, such as grade promotion or high school graduation, and schools. More and more often, they also are intended to shape curriculum and instruction.”11 It is assumed that newer tests have overcome the flaws of past tests and are accurately able to measure important data that is worth “testing to”. However, this argument completely ignores the real-world limitations to what a standardized test can actually do.12 Tests are created to assess a student’s knowledge base; meaning test results are not representative of the student’s total academic ability. [7]

Despite the knowledge that "one size fits all" testing fails to adequately assess student abilities, the use of standardized testing is expanding. Kok-Devries explains the effect tests have on students is little understood.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There is less research to address how standardized testing impacts students. The research available indicated that standardized testing often had a negative impact on students. Anxiety and fear of failure on tests was observed across grade levels. Even children in elementary schools experienced high levels of anxiety and worry (Triplett & Barksdale, 2005). [6]

The NCTE soundly criticizes these negative impacts upon individual students and claims the categorization of students has profound repercussions on the ability of students to see themselves as capable of being successful.

NCTE 2014:
Another limitation on student learning results from the negative perceptions standardized tests can give to students about themselves and their own abilities. Studies show that elementary school students can begin to lose their sense of themselves as capable, able to do well in school and graduate, when they see unknown adults as controlling the administration and consequences of the standardized tests they are required to take. Even the very best ELA [English Language Arts] teachers have difficulty fostering learning in students who do not believe in their own abilities. Student learning is also limited by testing’s inflexible sorting of students into categories of proficient or not-proficient. It can be very difficult for students designated as not-proficient to imagine themselves as effective readers and writers. This test-generated binary is troubling because it gives no space to the full range of features that comprise effective reading and writing. [2] 

The personal impact of standardized testing on students is a very crucial impact for the Con, in my opinion.  A student's self-confidence and self-image is all important in fostering the kinds of attitudes required to succeed and yet the experts are warning that those students who fall below the standards imposed by the government are most at risk. This impact carries over to students motivation to apply for college.

Many institutions of high learning do not consider standardized tests as a major factor in college admissions as colleges tend to evaluate a wide range of criteria when selecting applicants. Some organizations are urging a more wide-spread movement among colleges to accept students who do not submit standardized test results based on research which shows these students often attain higher levels of  achievement than their test results would suggest.

Hiss, et al 2014:
Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply? At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, nonsubmitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but we are asking a much simpler and more direct question: if students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?

According to the Hiss study, while high-school GPAs do tend to predict collegiate success, test scores or lack of test scores do not.

Gawthrop 2014:
Universities understand that test scores do not reveal the whole picture about applicants and look at other factors besides test scores. It seems like common sense, that universities would look at more factors, in a potential student, than simply the test scores; but in compulsory education this is not the case. Test scores are typically the determiner of everything in grades K-12 and as a result, this can create adaptation. Test questions that require out of school knowledge, significantly affect students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The majority of these poorer students are minorities, either African American or Latino. The most provocative evidence on the negative effect of standardized testing is the tendency of African American students, to adapt to the expectations of standardized tests; these expectations being that black students will not do as well as white students.7[25]

Considering the impact on college admissions due to self-selection and adaption in schools with large minority populations, it is important to touch upon the the overall effect of standardized testing on minorities.

Minority Report

As has been widely reported since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), standardized tests often tend to further compartmentalize minority students and the time spent preparing the students for good test results detracted from other educational opportunities.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There seems to be significant agreement in the research that schools with a majority of minority students were most deeply affected by standardized testing (Lattimore, 2005; Lomax, West, Harmon, & Viator, 1995). It was the researchers’ view that minority children were not given equal educational opportunities, because a majority of their educational time was spent on test preparation. Furthermore, most of the instruction of the students did not promote higher level thinking skills (Diamond, 2007; Lattimore, 2005; Watanabe, 2007). [6]

Gawthrop looks further into the impact of standardized tests upon the mindsets of minority students even prior to taking the tests and suggests that under-performance is an adaptation strategy,

Gawthrop 2014:
A conservative economist, Gary Becker, found that disadvantaged minorities made poor decisions about investing in their own future based on their perception, of their own capabilities, which were shaped by societal expectations. For Becker, “the beliefs of employers, teachers, and other influential groups that minority members are less productive can be self-fulfilling” where members of disadvantaged factions will, “underinvest in education, training, and work skills” which subsequently make these groups less productive. This illustrates how adaptation by minority groups, to societal and cultural expectations, creates a cost that effects the starting position of these groups; meaning they do not enjoy equal status in an “objective” standardized test.[26]

Targeting the Middle

It seems there is a fair amount of evidence which shows that when schools focus on the test performance of the those who tend to center around the fringes of good test performance, effort to improve these groups tend to have detrimental effects on those students at the very top of the achievement scale.

Havdala 2010:
One of the best known studies on high achieving students is by Tom Loveless (2008), who examined the impact of NCLB on high achieving students. He utilized national student-level data from the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, one of the nation’s oldest exams and one that is administered to a random sampling of schools around the country.  He defined students at the 10th percentile as low achieving students and students at the 90th percentile as high achieving students, and tested the possibility that, since NCLB, the scores of high achieving students on the NAEP had slowed relative to those of lower achieving students. He analyzed these groups’ NAEP scores over time, using 2002, the year that NCLB was passed, as the significant year in his regressions. His research confirmed his hypothesis, indicating over a year’s worth of improvement of learning in low achieving students. Though high achieving students did not stop improving, their progress had slowed drastically since 2002.[3] 

And it may be intuitive to conclude that when the focus is upon those students who represent the middle of the road, that is, not the top tier of achievers and not the bottom, not only is the top tier receiving less attention, but the impact on the bottom is all the more profound.

Havdala 2010:
In contrast to Loveless, Carnoy and Loeb, and Reback, a wide array of studies have found an increasingly large gap between low and high achieving schools as a result of high stakes exams. Neal and Schanzenbach (2007) analyzed test scores in the Chicago school district from 2001 to 2002, a period when Chicago Public Schools shifted from a system of low stakes testing to a high stakes system. Though it was unclear whether high achieving students made any progress, low achieving students continued to lag far behind others. Only those students who were initially around the proficiency threshold had a significant improvement in scores. Such findings indicated the possibility that teachers focused their efforts on those students they felt could be pushed over the threshold, at the cost of those who were far above or far below (reflecting the threshold findings of Reback).[4]

For all these reasons and more, we urge a Con ballot.


Gawthrop , J (2014), Measuring Student Achievement: A Study of Standardized Testing and its Effect on Student Learning, Measuring Student Achievement, accessed 11/11/2016 at: http://my.jessup.edu/publicpolicy/wp-content/uploads/sites/39/2014/04/Gawthrop_Jeremiah_Final.pdf

Havdala, Robert J. (2010) "The Impact of High Stakes Standardized Testing on High and Low Achieving School Districts:
The Case of the MCAS," Undergraduate Economic Review: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Hiss, W, et al (2014), DEFINING PROMISE: OPTIONAL STANDARDIZED TESTING POLICIES IN AMERICAN COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS. accessed 11/10/2015 at: http://www.nacacnet.org/research/research-data/nacac-research/Documents/DefiningPromise.pdf

Kok-DeVries, M (2011), STANDARDIZED TESTING AND THE IMPACT ON CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION, Symposium on School Leadership, University of Omaha, accessed 11/10/2015 at: http://coe.unomaha.edu/moec/briefs/EDAD9550kokdevries.pdf

Musoleno, RR & White, GP (2010), Influences of High-Stakes Testing on Middle School Mission and Practice, Research in Middle Level Education (RMLE), 2010 Volume 34, No. 3. Accessed 11/11/2016 at: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ914055.pdf

NCTE (2014), How Standardized Tests Shape—and Limit—Student Learning, A Policy Research Brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English, accessed 11/10/2015 at: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CC/0242-nov2014/CC0242PolicyStandardized.pdf

Schul, JE (2011), Unintended Consequences: Fundamental Flaws That Plague the No Child Left Behind Act, Ohio Northern University, 2011, Accessed 11/10/2016 at: https://nau.edu/uploadedFiles/Academic/COE/About/Projects/Unintended%20Consequences.pdf


  1. The link for the evidence from Kok-DeVries "cannot be found" and I can't find it anywhere else. Where did you find it?

    1. The link supplied is the correct link. However, it appears the University server is having problems or they have moved their research archives. Their own internal link (now broken) is on this page.


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