Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools

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That’s the number.

No annual testing. No grade span testing. Not even one measly graduation requirement.


We need exactly ZERO standardized tests in our public schools.

I know that sounds extreme. We’ve been testing our children like it was the only thing of academic value for more than a decade. When the question finally arises – how many tests do we need? – it can sound radical to say “none.”

But that’s the right answer.

And finally Congress is asking the right question.

The U.S. Senate is holding hearings to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the federal law that governs K-12 schools. One of the biggest issues at stake is exactly this – how many standardized tests should we give students?

Sen. Lamar Alexander – head of the Senate Education Committee – is asking the public to email testimony to FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov. Parents, teachers and concerned citizens are writing in with their concerns about testing.

But will they have the courage to tell the whole truth in this – our moment of truth?

We’ve fought so long just to get someone to recognize there is a problem. Will we be able to honestly assess the solution?

We’re like a lifetime smoker who’s been diagnosed with lung cancer being asked how many packs he needs.

Or an alcoholic waking in a puddle of vomit being asked how many drinks he needs.

Or a junkie after a near-death overdose being asked how many crack pipes he needs.

We all know the right answer in those situations – and it’s the same for us about standardized testing.

We need None. Nada. Negatory.

But our hands shake. We get cold sweats. Withdrawal sets in.

Will we face our national addiction? Or again double down in denial?

Remember there is no positive benefit for forcing our children to go through this mess. It is not for them that we mandate these policies. It is for us – so that we can pretend we have control over something that is uncontrollable.

Learning is not something measurable in the same way as water being poured into a glass. It defies the precision of our instruments.

Don’t think so? Then answer me this: which unit of measurement should we use to determine how much learning has been accomplished? Pounds? Grams? Liters? Hectares?

Billy got hisself 20 pounds of book learnin‘ at the school today?

Not really.

We use grades like A, B, C – but there’s nothing precise about them. They’re just a percentage of assignments completed to the teacher’s satisfaction.

I don’t mean to say that you can’t tell if learning has taken place. But how much? That’s difficult to gauge – especially as the complexity of the skill in question increases.

You can tell if your dog knows how to sit by commanding it to sit and observing what it does. It’s a much different matter to ask someone to evaluate the themes of a novel and determine how much literary analysis that person understands based on his answer.

Of course teachers do it every day, but that determination is, itself, subjective. You’re required to trust the judgment of the educator. You have to believe the instructor knows what she’s talking about.

That’s the best you can get in the humanities – and teaching is a humanity – more an art than a science.

Perhaps some day neuroscientists will allow us to determine the relationship between firing synapses and brain events to internal states like learning. At such time, perhaps the very act of comprehension will be closer to loading a program onto your hard drive. But until that day, education is a social science.

The push for increased standardized testing, however, is an attempt to hide this fact. And the results are less – not more – valid than a teacher’s classroom grades.


Cut scores.

Most people don’t know how you score a standardized test. If they did, they wouldn’t automatically trust the results.

Fact: standardized tests are graded by temporary workers – many of whom have no education background – determining at will what counts as passing and failing in any given year. In fact, they have an incentive to fail as many people as possible to increase the market for their employer’s test prep material.

That is NOT objective. In fact, it is LESS objective than the grade provided by the classroom teacher. After all, what is the educator’s incentive to pass or fail a student other than successful completion of the work?

In fact, statistics back this up. Taken as a whole, standardized test scores do NOT demonstrate mastery of skills. They show a students’ parental income. In general, poor kids score badly and rich kids score well.

Moreover, the high stakes nature of testing distorts the curriculum students receive. Instead of a well-rounded course of study focusing on higher order thinking skills, high stakes testing narrows what is taught to that which can most easily be tested. This creates a market for the test prep materials that are often created and distributed by the same corporations who create, distribute and grade the standardized tests. It’s a conflict of interests, a feedback loop, a Ponzi scheme – in short, fraud perpetrated on the public as if it were education reform.

Honestly, we know all this at heart. Every teacher, politician, statistician, and student. But as a society, instead of devising a better method, we continually reach for the same failing solutions.

When No Child Left Behind failed to produce results, we doubled down with Race to the Top. When a focus on state standards didn’t help, we created Common Core.

That’s an addiction.

Likewise calls to reduce testing without ending it are just cries from the junkie for another fix.

Yes, grade span testing (three exams spaced out over elementary, middle and high school) is better than annual testing (once in each grade from 3-8th and once in high school). So is a single graduation test. But why do it at all?

The burden of proof is on those defending tests. If these assessments really are as toxic as we’ve shown, why would less of them be more beneficial than none?

I see no reason to suppose that even limited testing would avoid these criticisms. Grade span testing would still be appraised with cut scores, still assess socioeconomics – not academics, still deform the curriculum… Why keep it – even in smaller quantities?

But what’s the alternative, naysayers will complain. If we don’t standardize test our children to death, what do we do?

Answer: focus on the problem – poverty.

More than half of all US public school students live below the poverty line. These children have increased needs for tutoring, counseling, nutrition, and wraparound services. Moreover, these are exactly the children who go to the most underfunded schools. They have the largest class sizes and the smallest offerings of arts, music, foreign languages and extra-curricular activities. The equipment and often buildings which serve these kids are overwhelmingly out-of-date and in need of repair, remodeling or replacement.

If you really wanted to improve the US education system, you’d address this glaring problem.

Equally, you need to elevate the profession of teaching, not denigrate it. Return the creation and execution of education policy to the experts – educators. Provide them with the resources they need to get the job done. Equip them with professional development that helps instruction, not testing. Help them individualize students’ educational experience, not standardize it. And offer racial sensitivity training to maximize cultural understanding between teachers and students.

How would we tell if any of this worked?

Easy. First, stop pretending that our current system of accountability works. It’s a sham.

Despite a media narrative of failing schools, comparisons with international education systems put American students at the very top – not the bottom – if you take poverty into account. Of course, no one wants to do that because we’d have to admit these comparisons are based on – you guessed it – standardized test scores, which AGAIN show economic disparity not intellectual achievement!

So we deify testing as the only thing that can hold schools accountable, then ignore data that disproves our findings and pretend like we have some hard-nosed system that keeps educators responsible. It doesn’t. It’s just a story like The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood or Climate Change Denial.

So how do we start to actually tell if our education system works? Easy. Trust our nations parents, students and teachers to tell us. And actually listen to what they say!

Now is the time.

Speak or forever hold your peace.

Whether our policymakers will even listen to us is a separate question. If WE’RE strung out on testing, they’re at least as dependent on the lobbying dollars of the assessment industry.

But we have to try.

Our collective hands may shake. A quaver may creep into our voices. We may get hot and cold sweats.

But the truth must come out.

How many standardized tests do we need?


This article was also published on the Education Bloggers Network page and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

52 thoughts on “Why We Should Have ZERO Standardized Tests in Public Schools

  1. Reblogged this on Trust me, I'm a librarian and commented:
    This is so important. I do see the need for SAT or ACT tests. That’s fine, and those are optional (in a way, since they are required for college applications). But it would be so much better if we could see every student in school with a breakfast & lunch (especially a breakfast served longer in the morning…), school supplies, backpacks, winter coats, etc. That doesn’t solve the poverty at home, but it can help. Stop focusing on the high stakes/high stress tests and start trusting teachers. We see the students daily. We know they struggle. Let us give individualised attention based on mastery of the content; not train them to test. Testing isn’t going to give them the skills they need in college and careers. Knowing how to think, how to question, how to research, and how to solve problems (yes, I’m starting a coding club, watch here for details .http://www.donorschoose.org/allegradambruoso/ ), is what is going to get them to succeed in life.


  2. The education system (at least that which I’ve experienced since living in the USA) is far more broken than simply standardised testing; unless of course, you’re also including the mandatory college degree culture which is perhaps the most heinous dogma of the entire system, and a fantastic gravy-train to boot! Standardised tests is a natural consequence of “learning by rote” which is used to ensure that everyone is memorising their facts correctly. As a result we have a workplace (I speak from experience) full of the best “fact retainers” rather than a workplace full of thinkers, who claim they deserve huge amounts of money because they did their time in college, (but don’t you dare ask them any questions that they weren’t explicitly taught the answers to!). There should be a push to encourage schools to base all the curriculum around critical and creative thought, rather than spoon-fed questions with canned responses. Facts should be the building blocks of education, not an end in and of themselves. We need a workplace full of thinkers, not of walking, talking, text books. Just my 2¢.


  3. In lieu of a standardized test for graduating from high school, we should adopt the dissertation approach. The student declares a topic he or she will write a paper on that must be completed and defended prior to graduation. We can let them pick the topic from those in a traditional high school course of study (which can help wvalyate teachers as well) and if the student can successfully defend and explain his or her ideas orally and in writing then we know learning has occurred. Just think…synthesizing disparate ideas and analyzing their relevance. How progressive.


  4. […] This smart essay made me realize I didn’t go far enough in my letter to Senator Alexander. I suggested that we should only have standardized tests if they are developmentally appropriate, transparently graded, and returned promptly with detailed results. Of course, I knew what I was asking was impossible, and that was the point. But Steven Singer points out the simplest and most radical solution to the problems created by standardized testing: chuck it all. Get rid of every bit of it. It’s pointless as a learning exercise, it’s abusive to children, it’s a waste of money, its purpose is merely to create data to justify its own existence. It’s harder to stand behind the continued use of standardized tests than to just stop putting anyone through this data-driven madness. Trust teachers to make their own assessments, and stop interfering. That’s the first step to improve the quality of education. […]


  5. After my son went to a self directed school for 9 years where there were no grades, no tests, he was encouraged to think for himself, question things, do research and problem solve he headed to a public high school for his freshman year. He was miserable and kept telling us he felt limited and was learning how to hate learning and how to take a test. He asked if he could homeschool so he could like learning again and even though this wasnt anything we had ever considered we let him opt out of school and take control of his learning and it has been quite liberating. Our family is not stressed out anymore and we are all happier since doing this. He loves learning again and is totally engaged. He is always learning, not just during school hours because he is interested again.When kids feel like they are part of the experience it does wonders for them. I know this may not be feasible for everyone, but how about we at least get rid of testing in the schools and let the kids start being more involved in choosing what they learn so they can be excited to continue learning instead of just waiting for the day to “get out” of school. There are self directed learning centers for teens popping up all over that are working. Lets take that model to the public schools and get into the 21st century.


  6. We need to stop calling tests, assessments. Tests are only ONE component to assessments, spanned or not. Teacher observation is another piece of assessment. You can’t cut teachers out of the equation and think you have an assessment…it’s simply not true.


  7. Thank you Steven. Zero is exactly right. I have been the director/owner…original founder…of an innovative school for going on seven years. Our “assessments” are about one thing: engagement. If a child is engaged because he/she is learning at his/her level, excited about learning, and academically nurtured appropriately, he/she displays engagement, and we know learning and progress are taking place. In addition, the child is inspired to grow and learn more. It’s really very simple. I wish policy makers knew their clients (children) at least a little bit.


  8. […] As Diane Ravitch says, you will have two classes of people, one with a diploma and one without a diploma. This will not be good for society as you’ll likely see it cut along economic levels. You will also see minorities in poverty and ELL and students with disabilities, who will be denied their diploma because they failed their high school exit exam. Requiring a test when you have students who live in poverty, is not the right thing to do, especiall…. […]


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