Standardized Testing Is Not the Great Equalizer

By Sasha Tucker 21

A typical standardized testing setup (Photo Credit: Wayland Student Press)
A typical standardized testing setup (Photo Credit: Wayland Student Press)

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a bipartisan law that affected every public school in the United States. It sought to level the playing field for disadvantaged students, including minorities, those in poverty, those receiving education services, and English language learners. The law supported standards-based education reform and was grounded in the idea that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals would improve education outcomes. Essentially, the law planned to rely almost entirely on standardized testing.


NCLB was replaced in 2015 with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which turned over the national features of the 2002 law to individual states. Under ESSA, the states determine educational plans for their schools within a national framework.


In 2018, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) put the United States 25th in the Worldwide Ranking average score of mathematics, science, and reading. More specifically, in 2018, the United States was 37th in the world for math, 18th for science, and 13th for reading. At that time, NCLB had been in place for thirteen years and ESSA for three. PISA conducts its ranking every three years, and the United States has been scoring lower than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average in math and remaining at average or below average in reading and science since 2003.


One might ask, then, what NCLB and ESSA have achieved. Before jumping to conclusions, let us remember that NCLB did lead to inclusion. Before the law was passed, elementary, middle, and high schools neglected to measure the progress of non-neurotypical students, but NCLB pushed schools to give struggling students more attention and support. In fact, the rate at which students with learning disabilities leave high school with a regular diploma has been gradually rising for a decade, the National Center for Learning Disabilities reports.


Nevertheless, NCLB may have created more problems in public education than it has solved. Since its passing, the law has been accused of pushing teachers to “teach to the test” and neglect any curriculum that will not appear on the standardized test. Incentive-wise, this makes perfect sense; if students do well on standardized tests, the school and teachers are rewarded. Morally, though, “teaching to the test” is not ideal. Standardized tests cannot possibly measure all that is meaningful.


Prolific critic of national education policy Dr. Gerald W. Bracey listed important attributes that the tests fail to measure: “creativity, critical thinking … persistence, curiosity, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity.”


He wrote that “We went from a system that valued producing good citizens for a democracy to one that worshipped at the temple of high test scores. We should be asking, what were we thinking?”

Standardized tests were advertised as the path to leveling the playing field. Are they, though? Under NCLB, English language learners and students with individualized education programs were required to take the same standardized tests as their classmates, potentially disadvantaging them, even if teachers or administrators offer supplemental help. Encouraging students with varying abilities and backgrounds to learn together is a fantastic idea, but assessing them at the same level is less than conscientious.


Standardized testing falls on the shoulders of public school students, but the burden of college testing (APs, SAT Subject Tests, ACT, and SAT) is borne by students across the country. On the surface, college tests are the great equalizer: every student takes the same test and is assessed on the same scale.


Fun fact: the SAT was written in 1920 by a former eugenicist named Carl Brigham with the intent to prove that Jews, Mediterraneans, and People of Color are less intelligent.

In 2014, The College Board overhauled the SAT in order to, as Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote in a Washington Post article “level the playing field.” Sound familiar? Goldfarb’s article analyzes a series of charts, derived from The College Board’s own data, which together show that wealthier Americans from better-educated families tend to score higher on the SAT.


Scores (on the pre-2014 SAT out of 1800) are highly correlated with income—students from families earning more than $200,000 a year averaged a combined score of 1714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year averaged a combined score of 1326. Another key factor in standardized testing performance is familial education. Students with a parent who earned a graduate degree score on average 300 points higher than students with a parent who only earned a high school degree.


Now, the cherry on top. A March 2019 report from IBISWorld valued tutoring and the test prep industry at $1.1 billion, with exam prep services making up 25% of the industry. The income statistic makes tremendous sense—affluent families are able to spend large amounts of money on test-prep. Princeton Review, a large test-prep program, charges as much as $2,600 for ten hours of private instruction, and prices for tutoring agencies or individual tutors can be even higher, MarketWatch reports.


While there are ways to save money on test-prep, such as The College Board’s partnership with free online tutoring service Khan Academy, prep classes or individualized sessions remain accessible only to those with money to spend. And often, those with money are white, too. The College Board’s 2014 report on the SAT found that Asian, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and white students averaged about 200 to 400 points higher than Black, African American, Hispanic or Latinx students.


In the wake of COVID-19, colleges across the country are going “test-optional” for the class of 2021. Perhaps this spells out the end of standardized testing, and perhaps data will show what schools who have already gone test-optional know to be true: schools that go test-optional generally see an increase in the number of Black and Latinx students, who are less likely than their white peers to have access to expensive SAT prep, according to MarketWatch.


So, reader, has the playing field been leveled? Are standardized tests the great equalizer and the path to educational equality? Or are they devaluing American education and being used to the advantage of the privileged? The data speaks for itself.