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Problems With Standardized Testing in Public Schools: A Parent's Guide

I live in Charleston, South Carolina, with my husband and two children. I enjoy writing in my spare time.

Standardized Testing

Standardized Testing

What Is High Stakes Testing?

What is high-stakes testing and how does it affect your child? What is “teaching to the test” and why are US public schools often referred to as "test prep centers"? If you are a non-educator parent, you may have heard of these terms recently, but may not know exactly what they mean.

Parents often do not realize that they have a voice in public education. In fact, the 14th Amendment of our Constitution grants parents the ultimate decision-making power in the education of their children. Don't wait for your child to experience a problem before you decide to become informed and involved.

To understand what high-stakes testing is, you need to know what legislation our country adopted that led us to the current test-based accountability system.

What Is NCLB?

About 10 years ago, our federal government passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act which was intended to reform our educational system and ensure that all public school students received an appropriate education. The law has been deemed a failure by many, largely in part for the unrealistic goals it set.

NCLB dictated that by 2014, all public school students would be on grade level in math and reading. The 100% goal is obviously unattainable, because our children have different learning styles and abilities. Instead of improving public education, NCLB has left us with some very destructive side effects.

The goals of NCLB were set to be measured by annual standardized state tests, and so the test scores became very important. The state tests graduated from being crude tools that gave a snapshot view of current educational trends to an inflexible yardstick that somehow could measure annual student achievement, school success, and now even teacher and principal effectiveness. NCLB gave importance and value to test scores, and thus breathed life into high-stakes testing.

What Are the High Stakes?

When you hear the term “high-stakes,” it refers to the reward or punishment that is tied to the test scores. Schools will receive additional funding for good scores. Teachers will receive merit pay and obtain job security for good test scores. Schools will be closed if they fail to increase test scores. Teachers will be fired.

This pressure has led to mass cheating in cities such as Atlanta and Washington D.C., where test answers were falsified to ensure better grades for the schools. The pressure has also led to a culture of test-prep as students are often quizzed to make sure they can regurgitate the facts that will most likely be on the test.

Students are aware that test scores are very important to schools. Across the nation, students are being rewarded for higher test scores. Students have received money, candy, parties, special armbands, and toys for higher scores. My own school district bussed all the students from the 14 lowest-performing schools to a stadium and held a mass pep rally specifically for the state test.

The pressure of high-stake testing has trickled down to the students, often causing undue stress and anxiety. In my school district, we have teachers giving a daily countdown to state test days that are six weeks away.

National Resolution Against High Stakes Testing

Hundreds of school boards in Texas recently adopted a resolution against high stakes testing. Now, a National Resolution Against High Stakes Testing has been written and is being circulated through the states. Ask your school board members if they have seen the resolution and if they would vote to adopt it for your school district.

How Standardized Test Scores Are Used (Or Misused)

Ideally, state standardized tests would measure a student’s annual achievement—what the student learned in one year at school. Unfortunately, a test does not exist to measure something so abstract and even if it could, it would not be able to differentiate where the knowledge came from.

Issues With Standardized Testing

In other words, does Sally score well in English because she has a wonderful teacher or because she has always been an avid reader? Does Bobby score low in English because he has a terrible teacher or because he has a learning disability or rough home life? Standardized tests are not reliable enough to be used for teacher and school accountability or for student retention and class placement.

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Yet, for the last 10 years, we have relied on these test scores to rate schools, and now some states are using the data to evaluate and pay teachers for achieving "results" as opposed to paying them for effort or a job well done. This concept is so very flawed because teachers do not hold all the responsibility for how a child scores on the state test. In fact, a child’s home life has the most influence on student achievement.

To address this criticism, policy-makers have formulated a value-added model that uses statistics to gauge how much value a teacher adds to a student's learning in one year. The problem with using these types of statistics is that the margin of error is typically 50% or more. It just cannot be done that way, and parents really need to speak out on this issue since it is our children who are being used as pawns in the high-stakes game.

Diane Ravitch on NCLB and High Stakes Testing

When Parents Should Be Concerned

You may already have a sense that something is not quite right at your child's public school. These are a few things to look out for:

  • the school staff seems more concerned with test scores than the best interest of the student
  • the majority of your child's classwork and homework is worksheets
  • your child has been offered a reward to improve his standardized test score
  • your child knows the test scores of other students in the class
  • your child is very anxious about upcoming standardized tests
  • your child is tested once a week or more in any one subject
  • your child is encouraged to attend Saturday school or after school classes to improve test-taking skills
  • your child is spending a lot of time on practice tests
  • your child has memorized many facts for the year, but really has not learned anything
  • in upper elementary and higher grades, very little time is spent on writing skills
  • it is suggested that your child be retained a grade based solely on standardized test scores
  • your child is placed in a class that does not correspond to his current grades and ability

What a Parent Can Do to Become Involved in Education

A common misconception with public education is that the parent's voice does not matter. I have heard so many people say "It's public school, what do you expect?" or "You get what you pay for." Parents do have a voice and need to claim it. These are some things you can do if you suspect high stakes testing is having a negative effect on your child or school:

  • research high-stakes testing
  • talk to other parents and share concerns
  • communicate with teachers and principals, and ask questions
  • contact the school district if you cannot work out a problem with the school
  • contact school board members
  • attend school meetings
  • write state legislators about your concerns
  • join local or national advocacy groups that are taking action against high-stakes testing.


Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 16, 2012:

Hi, MT!

I see it this way - we have teachers working, doing their jobs, just as a doctor or policeman does his job. We have principals who evaluate the teachers and lead them, fixing any problems that may exist. Then we have the school districts over the principals. My state also has a state evaluation system for teachers. I trust this system and see my children's progress in their grades and in the work they bring home. Student portfolios are great ways to show what actual progress was made in the classroom.

No other country uses test based accountability the way the US does. The private schools here do not. The bottom line is that the teacher is not the #1 influence of student success - homelife/background is. That is the area we need to work on as a community. Give extra help to the homeless, hungry, poor, disabled, Enlglish 2nd language, etc., but don't blame schools and teachers for factors out of their control.

A high performing school for me is a clean safe place with caring educators who put the students first and spark learning.

Shasta Matova from USA on June 16, 2012:

I agree that we should continue to take an active in our children's education- to make sure that they are getting the best teaching they can get, and that it isn't focused solely on passing the test. Do you have any suggestions on what criteria should be used to measure progress in education, and teacher and school performance instead of these high stakes tests?

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on May 31, 2012:

Thanks, Bishopdown. I wish I had known more before my children started school. Knowledge is power!

Bishopdown from Tampa, Florida on May 31, 2012:

This is interesting. I heard about the NCLB laws and I didn't like it. As I don't have any children yet, I'll be sure to play a very influential role in their education.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on May 30, 2012:

Thank you, Sturgeonl. I really like the word you used here - empower.

Sturgeonl on May 30, 2012:

Great advice to educate and empower parents. It is always important to remember that tests should be used to target areas of instruction for children. We need to be asking what is being done to improve my child's education in response to the assessment.Very informative. Voted up and useful.

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