To test or not to test; that’s a tough question

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

There’s a part of me that wants to opt my kids out of standardized testing.

But I’m not going to.

I hear about the controversy over testing (see sidebar), and I side with parents who believe they are ultimately responsible and accountable for their child’s education. We – as parents – do have primary responsibility for the education of our children. It says so clearly in education law (Title 20, Education, Chapter 48, U.S. Code § 3401).

The law also says the state and schools have the “primary responsibility for supporting that parental role.”

I agree, not just because it is written in the law, but because it is true.

Parents need to embrace the role and responsibility of being their child’s first and best teacher. At the same time, parents should recognize the important support role schools play in educating their children.

When parents send their children to public school, they are agreeing to participate in an educational collaboration. We are delegating some of the responsibility of teaching our children to professional educators.

This partnership, funded by public tax dollars, requires some kind of oversight and accountability. It is reasonable that schools should be expected to show their communities that children are learning what we expect them to learn. (Those expectations are spelled out in state learning standards, but that leads to another discussion for another day.)

Schools build academic programs that begin with the end in mind. At the completion of any particular grade, students should know and be able to accomplish a predetermined set of skills and tasks. How do we know if they’ve achieved those expectations? We test them.

Teachers can look at the results – what kids get right and wrong on tests or tasks – and adjust their teaching to meet the needs of their students.

Parents send their children to school with the confidence that the adults there – the teachers, principals, other administrators and staff – care about educating our kids. Part of the school’s program involves test-taking throughout the year. Some tests are simply to establish where the class stands before a unit is taught (benchmarking), some are measures of progress, some are final exams (allowing students to show that they have mastered the knowledge from a particular subject) and some are statewide tests for district accountability to the state.

Individual school districts – and state education departments – measure their effectiveness by comparing themselves with other schools, around the state and across the country, based partly on the results from standardized tests that all students take.

We all take tests, even as adults. Lawyers, physicians, pilots and real-estate brokers all take standardized tests to make sure they have the necessary knowledge and skills for their professions. If you drive a car, you’ve passed a standardized test to earn the privilege. (At least all the rest of us on the road hope so.)

Standardized testing was introduced to public schools in the mid-1800s by Boston school reformers Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe, modeling their efforts on the centralized Prussian school system. So, it’s not anything new.

The modern testing movement got underway in the mid-1960s, and continued through education reform initiatives up to the present.

Today, the multiple-choice format used on standardized tests produces accurate information necessary to assess and improve American schools. According to the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, multiple-choice questions can provide “highly reliable test scores” and an “objective measurement of student achievement.”1

Today’s multiple-choice tests are more sophisticated than the questions many of us answered with our old #2 pencil. The Center for Public Education, a national public school advocacy group, says many “multiple-choice tests now require considerable thought, even notes and calculations, before choosing a bubble.”

In the end, tests are a reliable and objective measure of student achievement. Ninety-three percent of studies on student testing, including the use of large-scale and high-stakes standardized tests, found a “positive effect” on student achievement, according to a peer-reviewed, 100-year analysis of testing research completed in 2011 by testing scholar Richard P. Phelps.2

According to the New York State Education Department’s instructions for administering state standardized tests, none of the tests is longer than 90 minutes on any given day. Total time spent on tests over six days (for English-language arts (ELA) and math) is from 450–580 minutes – or between 7½ and 10 hours – depending on grade level. State-required standardized tests take up about one percent of the instructional time during a school year.

I’ve heard the arguments against standardized testing and, despite some reservations, I believe kids should take them. It’s part of life, having to do hard things, and sometimes doing things you don’t want to do. I want my kids to learn that lesson early. It goes along with developing 21st century skills such as persistence, adaptability, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and leadership. Letting my kids off the hook from confronting difficult tasks sends the wrong message, in my opinion. It’s just not OK to turn your nose up at something you are expected to do, just because it seems too hard or stressful.

At the same time, I understand parents’ concern about the stress and anxiety some children exhibit around testing time. (See Don’t Stress About the Tests.) You know your child best. If you can’t help your child manage the stress – If you truly feel as if taking a 90-minute test will harm your child – I support your right to opt-out.

If you have concerns about testing, I suggest you talk to your child’s teacher about how assessments are used in his or her classroom, and with the principal at your child’s school about how standardized test scores assist the school in making big-picture decisions about curriculum and instruction.

Many of the arguments I have heard against testing are overstated. Do your own research in the school that is partnering with you to educate your child.

1. Center for Teaching Excellence, “Improving Your Test Questions,” (accessed March 14, 2014)

2. Richard P. Phelps, “The Effect of Testing on Achievement: Meta-Analyses and Research Summary, 1910–2010,” Nonpartisan Education Review, Apr. 2011

Tom Antis has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since January 2008. He and his wife, Julie, have two children, ages 10 and 11, who take standardized tests with no ill effects.

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