Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.
For part 1 of this analysis, click here.
Support for the Pro position of this resolution if bountiful and defensible in a properly framed debate. At the outset, the Pro debater needs to recognize there is significant negative press against standardized testing arising from a multitude of factors, many of which are unrelated to the question of whether or not standardized testing is beneficial to student education. These negative factors poison the well and spread the perception that because some elements related to standardized testing are undesirable, then standardized testing in general must be undesirable. This, of course, is a logical fallacy; a kind of fallacy of composition in which one draws conclusions about a whole based upon an examination of smaller portions. Standardized testing is a tool and like any tool can be designed for specific purposes. We shall examine those purposes and their effect on education and we will scratch the surface of an abundance of studies which measure the effect of testing on students. Much of the research extends back several decades and is still cited in research journals today.
A Basic Definition
To clarify the position, I will provide a definition for standardized tests which describes their nature and their purpose.
A Standardized test is a test that is given in a consistent or “standard” manner. Standardized tests are designed to have consistent questions, administration procedures, and scoring procedures. When a standardized test is administrated, is it done so according to certain rules and specifications so that testing conditions are the same for all test takers. Standardized tests come in many forms, such as standardized interviews, questionnaires, or directly administered intelligence tests. The main benefit of standardized tests is they are typically more reliable and valid than non-standardized measures. They often provide some type of “standard score” which can help interpret how far a child’s score ranges from the average.
Based upon this definition we can surmise that the test may be administered by a school in accordance with some over-arching direction or purpose and may be required by local administration or government or at the state level. A key principle is the test must be administered and assessed in a standardized and consistent way aligned to the purpose it is designed to serve.
Standardized tests offer advantages to school system administrators which are not possible with in-class testing and assessments designed and graded by teachers. The key advantages are objectivity, comparability, and accountability (Churchill 2015). Depending on the type of test one teacher's evaluation of a student's test may be different than another teacher's evaluation of the same student's test results. This variability can result from a lack of objectivity in the design or assessment of the test and lead to different impressions of a student's level of achievement. Standardized tests are designed to greatly reduce subjective grading. Often, standardized tests are assessed by computers rather than humans. Not only does this reduce costs by eliminating the need to pay graders, it enforces objective standards. The second major advantage is seen when a local school board needs to determine the overall level of achievement of, say sixth-graders in several different schools within their jurisdiction, Standardized tests ensure that all of the sixth-grade students will be evaluated on a common, objective standard. This allows a fair evaluation of sixth-grade achievement and helps determine which schools or classes may be in need of improvement. Objectivity and comparability are both necessary to realize the advantages linked to accountability. School system administrators use the tests as a feedback mechanism for the schools and classes to alter curriculum or resources in such a way they can benefit student achievement. Accountability requires the individual schools and instructors demonstrate forward progress in achieving the goals of the school administration.
From Feedback to Blowback
I do want to spend a little time discussing the downside of standardized tests because I believe a thorough evaluation and acknowledgement of problems increases the Pro ethos. Accountability is pushed by governments intent on maximizing their educational dollars. Obviously, an administration concerned with high costs will tend to view standardized tests as a mechanism for achieving goals for the least cost. First, the cost of testing is relatively cheap and secondly standardized tests can potentially isolate problems in individual schools, classrooms, or teachers putting increased pressure on those systems and individuals. Moreover, politicians can use accountability to enhance their own political statuses.
But the fundamental problem is that many schools and school districts use standardized test results more for accountability than understanding or diagnosis. I'm not blaming educators for this situation, because they're only following orders. H. D. Hoover of the University of Iowa defends testing but agrees we've gone overboard. He places the blame squarely on politicians. "They want quick fixes, and they like tests because they're cheap. They mandate external tests because to the public it looks like they're doing something about education when all they're doing is actually a very inexpensive 'quick fix.'"
When accountability increases pressure on school districts in a heavy-handed way, students are often re-categorized for failure to demonstrate achievement above a particular "cut-line" which alarms and often angers parents. Teachers are pressured to increase the performance of students and some teachers are viewed as professionally incompetent. All of this pressure results in negative attitudes about standardized testing and leads to abuses which have resulted in overly narrowed curriculum which focus entirely on the tests, and in extreme cases, cheating. All of these negative impressions ripple through communities and result in the perception standardized tests are the problem. The link between the home and the administration is the classroom and the teachers themselves play a significant role in the success or failure of the testing programs.
Brown & Hattie (2012):
The belief systems of teachers are a significant factor in whether standardized tests can be educationally useful. Clearly, pre-existing beliefs that standardized tests are irrelevant can and will influence how teachers respond to the possibility of using tests educationally. But there are other options for understanding the purpose and nature of assessment; assessment can evaluate schools, it can evaluate or certify students, and it can be for improvement (Brown, 2008). For example, in the development of the asTTle standardized tests system, it was found that teachers who endorsed the conception of assessment related to “assessment is powerful for improving teaching” had higher interpretation scores on a test about the meaning of the asTTle test score reports (r = .34). In contrast, teachers who endorsed more strongly the conception of assessment as a means of evaluating or holding schools accountable had the lowest interpretation scores (r = -.21) (Hattie et al. 2006).Thus, successful use of standardized tests requires believing that they can contribute to improved teaching and student learning for the individuals in a teacher’s class. This belief leads to more accurate interpretation to the educationally useful information communicated in standardized test reports.
We can see tests as simple measuring systems which serve as an important tool in guiding the educational development of students. Ultimately it is how those tools are used and people's attitudes about how the tools are used which guides perception of whether or not the tests are beneficial. No doubt it guides the perception of the PF debate judge as well.
The Benefit to Students
Testing is good. Whether designed by teachers in the classroom or nationally recognized experts in the field of childhood education. Testing allows parents and students to self-assess. This is necessary because students (and often parents as well) are overly positive in their evaluation of themselves.
Benjamin & Pashler (2015):
One of the reasons that tests are unappealing to some students and to their overweening parents is that tests fairly reveal what we do and do not know. This feedback can violate the positive feelings we hold about ourselves and our abilities, which are often inappropriately optimistic, especially in the classroom (Hacker, Bol, Horgan, & Rakow, 2000). This violation causes students to rate instructors more poorly (Isley & Singh, 2005) and to generate complicated but unsupported theories about supposed learning styles that their classrooms are failing to support (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009). What is of particular concern is the way that such inappropriately tuned self-assessments influence study behavior.
Students who believe they do not need to study, will not study and parents who believe their children are meeting standards, will not push them to improve. Testing reveals educational shortcomings which enable parents and students to react to the benefit of the student's education.
Students benefit directly when they take tests that offer information on how well they have mastered the material intended for learning. School reading and mathematics skills, for example, can be precisely specified, and as students learn the skills, they benefit from ongoing information tailored to their specific, individual progress. Computers streamline this process by providing immediate feedback about correct and incorrect responses far more quickly and with much greater patience than teachers and tutors can provide.
The objective and rapid feedback given by standardized tests allows families to adjust their educational strategies sooner rather than later to their benefit.
Another important benefit arises when standardized exit examines are given sometime prior to graduation. Students, face enormous peer-pressure throughout their time in school. At the higher achievement levels there is a great deal of pressure to achieve status; to be in the top 10% or to achieve the highest GPA because of the belief it enhances a students ability to get into the best colleges or land the best jobs. But conversely, many students are under intense peer pressure to resist the high-stakes competition for school ranking and fall into a pattern of under-achievement as a strategy to maximize their personal welfare.
Steinberg, Brown and Dornbush conclude similarly that "The adolescent peer culture in America demeans academic success and scorns students who try to do well in school (1996, p. 19)." Why are the studious called suck ups, dorks and nerds or accused of "acting white"? In part, it is because, since exams are graded on a curve, their study effort is making it more difficult for others to get top grades. When exams are graded on a curve or college admissions are based on rank in class, joint welfare is maximized if no one puts in extra effort. In the repeated game that results, side payments–friendship and respect–and punishments–ridicule, harassment and ostracism–enforce the cooperative "don't study" solution. If, by contrast, students are evaluated relative to an outside standard, they no longer have a personal interest in getting teachers off track or persuading each other to refrain from studying. Peer pressure demeaning studiousness should diminish.
Standard tests and in particular, standardized exit examins change the game and provide an opportunity to evaluate students on their own merits rather than comparatively.
Curriculum-based external exit exam systems (CBEEES) improve the signaling of academic achievement. As a result, colleges and employers are likely to give greater weight to academic achievement when they make admission and hiring decisions, so the rewards for learning should grow and become more visible. CBEEES also shift attention towards measures of absolute achievement and away from measures of relative achievement such as rank in class and teacher grades. By doing so, CBEEES ameliorate the problem of peer pressure against studying.
The Benefit to Teachers
A properly applied accountability system based upon standardized testing can be beneficial to teachers which of course, ultimately benefits student education in general. We have already shown how teacher attitudes and perceptions play a critical role in the success of these programs. Feedback is essential for teacher success.
Hamilton & Stecher 2015:
After all, standardized tests can do many things: tell policymakers and families how well students are doing overall; play a role in state and district accountability systems; contribute to teacher evaluations; and inform decision-making about student course placement. Some tests are used in other ways that include teachers adapting day-to-day instruction to meet individual student needs based on each student's test results.
In fact, it appears that teachers generally see positive benefits in standardized tests and in the associated accountability systems. After all, teachers for the most part, are dedicated professionals who seek to benefit their students and ultimately their communities.
Hamilton, et al (2005):
Finally, teachers believe the SBA systems in their states have affected their schools, students, and themselves in a variety of positive ways, in particular by increasing the school’s focus on student learning. These positive effects were reported by teachers in schools that met their AYP targets as well as by teachers in schools that did not...[continued below]
Thus we see accountability can be positive even when systems fail to meet their targets. But the Pro side of this debate realizes the application of accountability is extremely important and as we have already discussed, teacher attitudes play a huge role in the success of these programs.
Hamilton, et al, continues:
[coninued from above]...At the same time, teachers express a number of concerns, particularly about staff morale, and their responses indicate that pressure to raise scores has led to some narrowing of curriculum. Majorities of teachers report that factors not under their control are hindering their efforts to improve student achievement. To the extent that teachers feel they lack the capacity to meet the accountability goals, it is likely that the pressure to meet AYP targets will lead to reduced morale and a greater temptation to focus narrowly on raising test scores to the exclusion of other important goals. [37-38]
We can conclude that teachers do understand and perceive benefits arising from increased focus upon student success and the capability to adjust their curriculum in ways which benefit the students in their classes. Still, Pro cannot ignore that proper application of the accountability systems which spawn standardized tests are vital and we shall explore that in more detail below.
The Benefits to Administrators
Properly applied, a system of standardized tests can be effective tool for administrators to evaluate and adjust educational priorities to the benefit of their jurisdictions.
If standardized tests are misused, of course, the program and student learning may be defective. When standardized tests are used appropriately, a great deal can be learned about how well schools function. That information allows educators and policymakers to make better-informed conclusions about how much students are learning, which in turn allows them to make better-informed decisions about improving programs.
It is a given that policymakers and administrators may narrow their focus to such a point it opens the door to abuses such as "teaching to the test" or cheating as I have previously mentioned. "Teaching to the test" is seen as a negative in that it may restrict the autonomy of schools and teachers, but in answer to that argument, Pro may point out that often the goals of accountability are precisely in agreement with what the community expectations are for their school systems.
Figlio & Loeb 2011:
Monitoring provides incentives for those being monitored to appear as effective as possible against the metric being assessed. It is certainly possible, therefore, that educators could teach very narrowly to the specific material covered on the tests, and little or no generalizable learning outside of that covered on the test would take place (Koretz and Barron, 1998). This restriction on the domains of learning may not be a concern if the tests that come with high stakes for schools cover a wide range of material considered important by society; in fact, this “teaching to the test” may be desirable.
Therefore is can be claimed "teaching to the test" can provide the capability to hit the key metrics required to achieve success in alignment with community expectations.
Approaches to Accountability
Thus far the Pro position has looked at the perceived benefits of standardized testing for the eduction of students in K-12 education systems. The biggest impact to education arises, not from the tests themselves (though we shall see, testing in and of itself is good) but rather from how the results are applied. So, when the sources discuss accountability it refers to how the results are used to properly determine the status of education within various school systems and how that knowledge can be used to drive progress in a way which benefits education and not just provide political gratification. Particular criticism of accountability metrics centers around the fact that students are often evaluated relative to standards determined by administrators. For example, the administration may decide all eighth-graders in the nation or the state should have this or that knowledge. These kinds of standards are a kind of one-size-fits-all approach which ignores individual capabilities and are falling into disfavor.
Ladd & Lauen 2009:
The theory of action behind educational accountability is that by setting standards and measuring performance relative to standards, teachers will work harder and students will learn more. Increasingly, however, observers have argued for shifting the metric for school accountability away from the achievement status of a school’s students, as is the case under NCLB [No Child Left Behind], in favor of a metric based on students’ growth in achievement during the year (Hanushek and Raymond 2005; Ladd and Walsh 2002; Toch and Harris 2008).
Two principle approaches to accountability have emerged and each is directed to different goals within the education system and as might be expected each has an up-side and a down-side.
Filio & Loeb 2011:
The two types of approaches—status and growth—measure different outcomes and tend to generate different objectives and incentives for schools. Status-based systems that focus on the percent of students who achieve at proficient levels seek to encourage schools to raise performance at least to that level (Krieg, 2008; Neal and Schanzenbach, 2010). This approach is appealing to many policy makers because it sets the same target for all groups of students and because it encourages schools to focus attention on the set of low performing students who in the past may have received little attention. Status based systems also have the advantage of being transparent. The goal of the growth model approach is to encourage schools to improve the performance of their students independently of the absolute level of that achievement. Such an approach is appealing to many people because of its perceived fairness. It explicitly takes into account the fact that where students end up is heavily dependent on where they start and the fact that the starting points tend to be highly correlated with family background characteristics. At the same time, the use of the growth model approach may raise political concerns, both because the public may find the approach less transparent than the status approach and because some see it as a way of letting schools with low average performance off the hook. 
The message for Pro, is the system in general works and it works well when the accountability is correctly used in accordance with generally accepted community standards of success. And that is the point, really. The standards and expectations are ultimately determined by the voters and residents of the communities which seek to maximize the welfare of their children.
Testing is Good
In researching this topic, I came across an interesting paper by Benjamin and Pashler discussing the psychology of testing in general and its beneficial effects on student learning. It is particularly interesting because one can examine the topic from a group of experts who have no real stake in standardized testing other than to study the effects of testing on human learning and extend the research to standardized testing as a genre of generalized testing.
Benjamin and Pashler discuss research which proves taking tests has a beneficial impact on students' long-term memory retention and supports a case favoring frequent testing (Benjamin & Pashler 2015:15). Additionally, testing improves cognition and the ability of learners to construct new conclusions by perceiving the relationships between facts (Benjamin & Pashler 2015:16). The paper also looks at the question of student motivation and addresses the concerns about narrow curriculum as having potentially beneficial outcomes.
Benjamin & Pashler 2015:
One of the most direct ways in which tests promote learning is by motivating students to study. The benefits of this effect can be controversial when it is believed that the test measures unimportant skills or when teachers focus on the test to the exclusion of other materials, two common criticisms of the current standardized tests for the Common Core. But the curriculum for the Common Core, as well as its attendant tests, is fluid and likely to experience considerable development. Students who take regular quizzes in the classroom are more likely to attend unrequired meetings (Fitch, Drucker, & Norton, 1951) and exhibit better class attendance (Wilder, Flood, & Stromsnes, 2001), both of which are known to increase student achievement. Moreover, tests with a clear agenda can focus teachers’ and students’ activities onto materials that are broadly considered to be valuable.
The Facts and Figures
So now we can conclude this position with a look at the research. The studies cited were conducted using a variety of methods mostly comprised of accumulating achievement measures under various scenarios and drawing statistical conclusions against various metrics. While I do believe citing statistics and facts has a positive influence on judges I also believe that going too deeply into studies will tend to diminish the impacts of conclusions as judges become overwhelmed in numbers. Here is a little of what I could find.
Carnoy & Loeb 2002:
Our results indicate a positive and significant relationship between the strength of states' accountability systems and math achievement gains at the 8th-grade level across racial/ethnic groups. Surprisingly, students' achievement at higher levels of math skills is also related significantly to stronger state accountability, suggesting that focusing on higher standards and how well schools do on tests may also improve higher level skills. This may result because schools with high-achieving students also feel the pressure to improve their students' performance. Indeed, there is some evidence that better perfonning schools have greater capacity to respond to external accountability pressures (Carnoy et al., in press). 
Figlio and Loeb examined the results of a plethora of studies and their paper serves as useful clearinghouse for debaters interested in going deeper in the research of acclaimed sources. This particular snippet is interesting because it mentions one particular factor that may actually work against instructors. The influence of home interference in teaching methods can skew results as parents pass along their own (perhaps undesirable) learning methods.
Figlio & Loeb 2011:
Though no one approach or study is flawless and many inconsistencies remain, taken as a whole, the body of research on implemented programs suggests that school accountability improves average student performance in affected schools, at least in general. Experimental evaluations of test score reporting, such as Andrabi et al.’s (2009) new results from Pakistan, also support the notion that accountability can boost student outcomes While, in general, the findings of the available studies indicate achievement growth in schools subject to accountability pressure, the estimated positive achievement effects of accountability systems emerge far more clearly and frequently for mathematics than for reading. This pattern is particularly clear when the outcome measure is based on a national test, such as NAEP, but it also emerges in some of the district or state level studies such as Figlio and Rouse (2006). In part this pattern reflects the fact that some authors report results only for math, although that is presumably because of the smaller effects for reading. The larger effects for math are intuitively plausible and are consistent with findings from other policy interventions such as voucher programs (Zimmer and Bettinger, 2008) and tax and expenditure limitations (Downes and Figlio, 1998). Compared to reading skills, math skills are more likely to be learned in the classroom, the curriculum is well-defined and sequenced, and there is less opportunity for parents to substitute for what goes on the classroom (Cronin et al., 2005, p. 58).
Finally, it is shown that regardless of the type of accountability employed, beneficial results are measured.
Ladd & Lauen 2009:
Using a ten-year panel data set and value-added models of student achievement with both student and school fixed effects, we find that neither type of school based accountability system generates distributionally neutral effects on student achievement in the schools subject to accountability pressure. Moreover, the distributional effects differ depending on whether the system holds schools accountable for the growth or the status of their students’ learning. This first conclusion should not be surprising. It simply reflects the fact that educators do indeed respond to incentives, and that the incentives to pay attention to students at different points of the achievement distribution differ between the two approaches. The policy challenge is to design a system consistent with the goals of the policy.
Thus, we conclude standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States. Is it perfect? No. But the evidence discussed above shows it is a fluid system that is evolving and learning from its mistakes. I guess we could conclude standardized testing is good for standardized testing.
Today’s eagerness to jettison our commitment to leave “no child behind” is a shame, not just because better tests are on the horizon, but also because it worked. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students have never been higher. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. And researchers repeatedly link No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on traditionally underperforming groups to real improvements in schools around the country.
Thus we urge a Pro ballot.
Click here for Con
Bishop, JH (1997). Do curriculum-based external exit exam systems enhance student achievement? (CAHRS Working Paper #97-28). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.
Brown, G. T. L., & Hattie, J. A. (2012). The benefits of regular standardized assessment in childhood education: Guiding improved instruction and learning. In S. Suggate & E. Reese (Eds.) Contemporary debates in child development and education (pp. 287-292). Accessed 11/7/2015 at: http://www.academia.edu/1964802/The_benefits_of_regular_standardized_assessment_in_childhood_education_Guiding_improved_instruction_and_learning
Carnoy, M and Loeb, S (2002), Does External Accountability Affect Student Outcomes? A Cross-State Analysis, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Winter 2002, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 305-331. accessed 11/6/2015 at: https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/EEPAaccountability.pdf
Churchill, A (2015), Bless the tests: Three reasons for standardized testing, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, (March 18, 2015) accessed 11/7/2015 at:
Hamilton, L and Stecher, B (2015), Make tests smarter, USNews & World Report, Nov. 2, 2015. Accessed 11/7/2015 at: http://www.usnews.com/opinion/knowledge-bank/2015/11/02/standardized-tests-can-be-smarter
JCCHD (undated), Johnson Center for Child and Development