The controversy over standardized tests, and why some arguments don’t hold up

March 17, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Some parents don’t want their children to take annual standardized tests, and they cite a number of reasons why. Although there is no statutory provision in New York state for “opting out” of the tests, many parents are still choosing that route.

Is opting out the right thing for your child? As parents, you should weigh both sides of the argument before making an informed decision in the best interest of your child.

We looked at eight of the arguments parents have made to defend their decision to opt their children out of taking tests, and then offer research-based responses for each of them.

Before you decide what’s best for your child, we encourage you to talk with your child’s teacher and principal about any concerns you may have.

1. Standardized tests are an unreliable measure of student performance.

“Standardized tests are reliable and objective measures of student achievement. Without them, policy makers would have to rely on tests scored by individual schools and teachers who have a stake in producing favorable results. Multiple-choice tests, in particular, are graded by machine and therefore are not subject to human subjectivity or bias.”1

2. “Teaching to the test” is replacing good teaching practices with “drill and kill” rote learning.

“Teaching to the test” can be a good thing because it focuses on essential content and skills, eliminates time-wasting activities that don’t produce learning gains, and motivates students to excel. 2 The United States Department of Education stated in November 2004, that “if teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested – and probably much more.” 3

3. Excessive test preparation consumes instructional time.

Testing does not force teachers to engage in rote-learning exercises and excessive test preparation, and neither of those practices is encouraged by the New York State Education Department. According to a 2005 study in the peer-reviewed Education Policy Analysis Archives, good teachers understand that “isolated drills on the types of items expected on the test” are unacceptable.” 4

In any case, research shows that drilling students does not produce better test scores. “Teaching a curriculum aligned to state standards and using test data as feedback produces higher test scores than an instructional emphasis on memorization and test-taking skills.” 2

4. Standardized testing causes severe stress in younger students.

Testing is not too stressful for most students. According to the United States Department of Education, “Although testing may be stressful for some students, testing is a normal and expected way of assessing what students have learned.” A November 2001 University of Arkansas study found that “the vast majority of students do not exhibit stress and have positive attitudes towards standardized testing programs.” Young students vomit at their desks for a variety of reasons, but only in rare cases is this the result of testing anxiety. 5

5. Testing is expensive, and costs have increased since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), placing a burden on state education budgets.

Standardized tests provide a lot of useful information at low cost, and consume little class time. According to a 2002 paper by Caroline M. Hoxby, PhD, the Scott and Donya Bommer Professor in Economics at Stanford University, standardized tests cost less than 0.1 percent of K-12 education spending, totaling $5.81 per student per year. “Even if payments were 10 times as large, they would still not be equal to 1 percent of what American jurisdictions spend on education.” 6

6. Excessive testing teaches children to be good at taking tests but does not prepare them for productive adult lives.

Stricter standards and increased testing are better preparing school students for college. In January 1998, Public Agenda found that 66 percent of college professors said, “elementary and high schools expect students to learn too little.” By March 2002, after the passing of NCLB and a surge in testing, that figure dropped to 47 percent “in direct support of higher expectations, strengthened standards and better tests.” 7

7. Using test scores to reward and punish teachers and schools encourages them to cheat the system for their own gain.

Cheating by teachers and administrators on standardized tests is rare and not a reason to stop testing children. The March 2011 USA Today investigation of scoring anomalies was inconclusive and found compelling suggestions of impropriety in only one school. 8 While it is likely that some cheating occurs, the solution is to fix the problem, not abolish testing.

8. Standardized tests are an imprecise measure of teacher performance, yet they are used to reward and punish teachers.

Only 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation under New York State’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) ratings system is derived from “student growth,” either from a state-provided growth score, state assessment results, OR a score that measures progress toward meeting Student Learning Objectives (SLO). The majority of the effectiveness score comes from classroom observation and evidence, and locally determined measures of student achievement.

In a 2009 Scholastic/Gates Foundation survey, 81 percent of US public school teachers said state-required standardized tests were at least “somewhat important” as a measure of students’ academic achievement. 9 Also, 73 percent of teachers surveyed in a March 2002 Public Agenda study said they “have not neglected regular teaching duties for test preparation.” 10


1 Richard Phelps, PhD, “Estimating the Costs and Benefits of Educational Testing Programs,”, Feb. 2002

2 Patte Barth and Ruth Mitchell, “Standardized Tests and Their Impact on Schooling: Q&A,”, Feb. 16, 2006

3 US Department of Education, “Testing: Frequently Asked Questions,”, Nov.17, 2004

4 Stuart S. Yeh, “Limiting the Unintended Consequences of High-Stakes Testing”, Education Policy Analysis Archives, Oct. 28, 2005

5 Sean W. Mulvenon, Joanie V. Connors, and Denise Lenares, “Impact of Accountability and School Testing on Students: Is There Evidence of Anxiety?”, Nov. 2011

6 Caroline M. Hoxby, “The Cost of Accountability,”, Apr. 2002

7 Louis V. Gerstner Jr., “The Tests We Know We Need,” New York Times, Mar. 14, 2002

8 Danny Rosenthal, “Don’t Make Education Policy Based on Cheaters,”, Apr. 4, 2011

9 Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on America’s Schools,”, Mar. 2010

10 Public Agenda, “Where’s the Backlash? Students Say They Don’t Fret Standardized Tests,”, Mar. 5, 2002