Written by Anna Bennethum
If you’ve ever been a student, you’re probably familiar with the process of standardized testing. Whether it’s IOWA testing in grade school, the ACT/SAT for college entrance, or testing for graduate programs like the LSATs and MCAT, almost every level of schooling within the U.S. relies in some way on standardized testing. The main goal of standardized testing is to measure a student’s retention of a particular subject matter and how those scores stack up nationally. But how effective is standardized testing really?
Research shows that for testing to be effective, there must be three things: The assessment must be over recently taught content, it must be low stakes and it must be administered more than once. The CBE: Life Science Education, a journal published by the American Society for Cell Biology, says, “After one week of studying, students lose much of their retained information and will perform significantly worse on major assessments.”
In a 2006 study, cognitive scientists Roediger and Karpicke found that students who took multiple, brief assessments before standardized testing had retention levels 20% higher on average than those who did not. Study after study report the same thing: Standardized testing is an inefficient method of measuring student retention. Student achievement is best measured through brief assessments directly following a content topic.
But even if scientific research supported standardized testing, there are other reasons that contribute to the ineffectiveness of such exams. Standardized testing caters to those of a higher social and monetary class. Rather than measuring raw intelligence, standardized tests measure one’s access to resources.
Take two students who are equally gifted academically. One belongs to a family that makes over six-figures a year. The other belongs to a single parent household struggling to make ends meet. The latter student cannot afford tutoring and test prep materials. This student even has limited study time because they have a job or younger siblings to take care of. Who will perform higher on the ACT college entrance exam? The working class and people of color are disproportionately affected by standardized testing. The very structure of these tests reflects the intellectual language of privilege.
There are cases in which standardized testing is a useful tool. Competitive graduate programs like law school rely on these test scores to select applicants from a pool of tens of thousands. Standardized testing scores can provide needed scholarship opportunities for low-income students. But standardized testing should not be the standard. Add to the fact that these tests exclude many fields and concentrations, many students cannot showcase their strengths through such testing. Research and case studies show us that it is time to reform our school system into a space where everyone can succeed.