Critical Analysis of the American Education System: Effect of Standardized Tests

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. An Analysis of the American Education System: The Effect of Standardized Tests on the Educational Environment
  3. The General Effect of Standardized Tests
  4. The Reliability of Standardized Tests
  5. What Standardized Tests Actually Assess
  6. The Effect of Standardized Tests on what is Taught
  7. Discussion of Standardized Testing
  8. Conclusion


This paper explores the effect standardized tests have on the American education system. As the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) has greatly increased the amount of standardized test in the United States, most prominently the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), this paper analyzes the effectiveness of those tests. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has revealed a drop in student ability of American students on the world stage in the last twenty years. This paper discusses the possible correlation between the increase in standardized testing in the United States in the past twenty years and this drop in student ability. It explores the reliability of said tests along with their effect on the knowledge levels of American students. It further explores whether or not those tests have helped to create an environment in which students learn skills applicable in today’s careers. Keywords: No Child Left Behind, Programme for International Student Assessment, Scholastic Aptitude Test

An Analysis of the American Education System: The Effect of Standardized Tests on the Educational Environment

Throughout the past twenty years, there has existed a critical attitude toward the American education system and how it works. Various parties have differing attitudes on the range of subjects and factors that affect the way students learn, and whether you are a member of a party which scrutinizes how the American education system operates or a member of a party which praises its current status, the fact remains: America has dropped on the world stage in terms of education. The United States scored 25th on the world stage in science and reading and 37th in mathematics in 2015 (Programme for International Student Assessment, 2015). Compared with 15th in science and reading and 17th in mathematics in 2000 (PISA, 2000). This paper will explore the possible reasons behind the United State’s recent drop in scoring on the world stage as it relates to the educational methods in America.

The General Effect of Standardized Tests

The drop in America’s international scores occurred in just the past twenty years, and the only major educational reform in the United States in the past twenty years has been the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). NCLB mainly focused on accountability. Schools, as a result of the act, had to and are still required to report measures in student performance yearly in grades 3-8 through standardized tests. Schools that scored low on these performance assessments risked funding cuts from local levels (Jacobs, 2007). This resulted in a radical change in what was prioritized in American schools. The standardized test became a rubric for curriculums across the country. Testing numbers became the priority, not the education of students. This system is still in place today, and there has been one major result: Standardized tests have resulted in schools in America failing to create an environment that produces students who can apply knowledge to careers of the modern world. The first question is this: do standardized tests improve education? Do they help to create an environment which prepares students for the careers of today? According to the Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Public Education at the National Research Council, standardized tests as a whole have had little effect in terms of improving the educational environment. 'Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education (2011). The report found no evidence that test-based incentive programs are working as a whole. The problem is consistency. Standardized tests, by their definition, are universal across the type of test, and all measure students to the same standard. Everyone who has taken the SAT on the 9th of March, 2019 has taken the same test. They are all being asked to apply their known knowledge through the same form. Yet all students are best at learning and applying knowledge through different means. Not all students perform well on assessments through a test format or learn in the way schools are required to teach. A standardized test holds all students to the same standard and yet students have different standards themselves. A system in which standardized tests are used can result in positive effects on achievement for some, and do nothing but present a stressful test for others. In fact, according to education researcher Gregory J. Cizek, anecdotes abound 'illustrating how testing... produces gripping anxiety in even the brightest students, and makes young children vomit or cry, or both (2005). And while some could argue that stress is simply a fact of testing in any circumstance, it does not dissuade from the fact that standardized tests as a whole fail to create consistent positive effects on achievement and improve education. Instead of viewing such testing as an incentive to improve their intellectual ability and thinking capabilities, many view them as a stressful task which decides their entire educational, and by extension occupational, future.

The Reliability of Standardized Tests

Furthermore, while standardized tests have been praised for their reliability as a universal measure of performance, studies have shown that they have failed to even live up to that standard. A study published by the Brookings Institution found that 50-80% of year-over-year test score improvements were temporary and 'caused by fluctuations that had nothing to do with long-term changes in learning...' (2001). Any student which has participated in some form of standardized testing can testify, that their performance can be directly affected by the type of day they're are having, whether or not they had breakfast that morning, whether they had a good night's sleep or woke up several times during the night. The point is, performance can fluctuate due to a multitude of factors, and a test that decides whether or not you get into a good college does not take that into account. If someone took a standardized test one day and took it again the next, it is extremely unlikely they would receive the same score. Whereas if someone were to take an IQ test at the age of three, it is likely that they would receive a similar score if they took the same test at the age of fifty-six. A test praised for its reliability in measuring student intelligence levels consistently does nothing of the sort. And despite their high praise and usage as a result of NCLB, no politician has stopped to ask if standardized tests in their current form reliably can produce results concerning intellectual ability, or for that matter, results which reflect career aptitude.

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What Standardized Tests Actually Assess

Speaking of what tests can and cannot do, it is important to understand what standardized tests by themselves are capable of, as they are given such importance by the federal government and the world of higher education. While it is no doubt that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) can measure whether or not one can decide whether a matrix is in row echelon form or whether or not they can define the word “spurious” the question is: do those questions accurately represent the contents of a person’s intellectual knowledge? And more to the point, will someone actually use that information that they are being tested on in the careers of today? According to a survey by Northeastern University sociologist Michael Handel, they do not. The survey states that of the 2,300 workers Handel surveyed, only twenty-two percent used mathematics at a higher level than algebra. (2009). While that is not to say that higher mathematics does not help with intellectual development. Math no doubt develops the thinking process, but that does not dissuade from the fact that it is not used in today’s careers. The test which is tasked with measuring if someone is capable of moving on to the higher education to get to those careers does measure such mathematics, having half of its test devoted to such subject. It chooses to ignore the more vital aspects important to the modern career. As researcher Gerald W. Bracey, PhD puts it, qualities that standardized tests cannot measure include, “creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity.” Qualities, which most everyone can agree on, are more vital to most careers than the ability to measure the magnitude of a vector.

The Effect of Standardized Tests on what is Taught

Whether or not a test does analyze such qualities has little effect on what is most important when discussing the American education system: education. A person can take a test and leave not having an experience that affects personal intellect whatsoever. They could go on to score high on assessments given by the PISA whether or not they took the SAT. Except for the fact that most standardized tests go beyond just the test. They enter the classroom, changing the priorities of school curriculums and how certain things are taught. A five-year University of Maryland study found 'the pressure teachers were feeling to 'teach to the test'' since NCLB was leading to 'declines in teaching higher-order thinking, in the amount of time spent on complex assignments, and in the actual amount of high cognitive content in the curriculum.' (2007) The institution of standardized tests not only changes the way students are assessed but how they are taught as well. The tests which have already been established as written to analyze qualities of students which are not prioritized for the modern career are shaping what curriculums focus on, and as a result what teachers are forced to teach. Schools spent less time on what makes education meaningful: critical thinking, creativity, persistance et cetera. A national 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2001, 44% of school districts had reduced the time spent on science, social studies, and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week in order to focus on reading and math. Standardized tests as a result of NCLB are narrowing the curriculum. Students are educated on how to pass a test which does not measure anything close to what is applicable in today’s society. They spend their twelve years in basic education learning anything but the basics.

Discussion of Standardized Testing

Replacement It is no doubt that the reliability of standardized tests as a whole has been called into question. The claim that standardized tests go as far as to improve education is shaky at best, considering their evidently narrow subject assessment, questionable reliability, and narrowing effect of educational curriculums as a whole. And yet, despite the plethora of evidence which calls the effectiveness of these tests into question they are still required in any conceivable efficient educational system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students who were projected to attend American colleges and universities in fall 2018 was 19.9 million (2017). And yet there are only around 4,500 degree-granting institutions in the United States. All of those students had to apply to those 4,500 universities and those 4,500 universities had to go through all of those applications. And unless each university happens to have 5,000 people employed in their admissions offices it had to of taken an unacceptable amount of time to go through the applications without a way to judge the intellectual ability of each applicant, ergo: the standardized test. While in a world perfected to focus on the individual’s intellectual ability there would be a perfectly objective person to judge each applicant, that is simply not feasible. There is required a way of assessing ability that results in a test score in the world of American higher education. And while it has been discussed that the way the United States education system goes about obtaining this test score is anything but perfect, that is not to say that standardized tests as a whole reflect that imperfection. If an educational system requires a form of standardized testing that does not instantaneously degrade the quality of that educational system. Arguably one of the best educational systems on the global stage, that of Finland, has a standardized test for when students apply to higher education (FNAE, 2018). It is how an educational system goes about instituting such tests is what is important. Finland only has that singular standardized test for higher education, the only test that is required in any efficient system, whereas in America as a result of NCLB, standardized tests are given through grades three through eight and are a large focus of high school education. Such frequent testing glorifies it, and, as discussed previously, molds the entirety of the curriculum of grades one through twelve in order to score higher on those tests. Tests which arguably assess information that is not prioritized in most modern careers. This results in not only a flawed system which curriculums focus on narrower and narrower information, but in a flawed educational culture, in which narrowing that curriculum is awarded and glorified. Success is of an American educational institution is measured in numbers and statistics, not in minds developed and grown. When a student is done and graduated, which is more important? Unfortunately, too many will answer with the former.


Any discussion of standardized tests opens up a reflection on education as a whole, not just any singular system, and it is important to remember the complexities when analyzing the behemoth that is the subject of education. That being said, it is more than evident that the way standardized tests are implemented in America’s school system is far from perfect. The test is shown to have little effect in terms of improving the educational environment as a whole. The test which has extreme control over the future of its takers has shown to lack reliability. It assesses narrow subjects while still being prioritized among educators. The test has changed the culture of American education as a whole and permeates beyond just the testing room. Schools educate their students not for the careers of today, but for the careers of the test. A test which has shown little interest in the future of its takers.

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Critical Analysis of the American Education System: Effect of Standardized Tests. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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