Why Do We Have Standardized Tests?

Why Do We Have Standardized Tests?

It’s spring season, which means you’re probably taking your standardized tests, gearing up to take them, or you’ve already taken them. Honestly, depending on where you live and how old you are, standardized testing is always a hot-button issue–especially when you consider how many people are staunchly for and against it. But the latter arguments always seem very compelling, even more so to those of us who have actually taken those tests. So why do we have standardized testing programs in America anyway?

How Much Are American Students Tested?

For whatever reason, “American kids are tested too much” is a common criticism levied against standardized testing. But honestly, regardless of where you’re from in the world, you probably grew up with standardized tests. 

Chinese kids, for example, grow up with their lives basically centered on entrance exams, like the one required to go from elementary/middle school to high school. And it gets even tougher as Chinese students prepare for life after secondary school. There is another standardized test that entirely determines college entrance. Like no, it’s literally the sole determining factor. You basically get one shot, sans extenuating circumstances. Heck, you can even read some of the (in)famously vague essay questions on that test. 

Moving to another part of the globe, a substantial number of students from the Netherlands report taking tests on a monthly basis–which isn’t too uncommon worldwide. 

In America, students will spend only about 2.3% of their schooling taking standardized tests. We don’t bring this up to say “other people have it worse,” because there are very strong criticisms of American standardized testing. We’ll get into those, but the point is that Americans aren’t tested much more than their international peers, on average.

Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay

After American students scored relatively poorly in comparison to their international peers, we started seeing a rise in standardized testing. This especially followed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The gist is that resource allocation towards schools is often determined by standardized test performance. Often, this is tied to teacher evaluations and pay. As in, the better your students do, the better you’re evaluated as a teacher. Sounds fairly intuitive, right?

Except, if you’ve been through school or interact with people regularly, you’d know that this system would fall apart fairly quickly. While supporters of the system claim that the evaluations are meant to factor out home life and other factors, many critics say that’s not possible. Which makes sense, there’s no way for that data to be factored in, since students aren’t asked if their parents are divorced or what their preexisting medical conditions are before taking a standardized test. 

But there’s more to it. You can end up in a situation like this Florida teacher. His evaluation was based on his students’ predicted score, based on their past performance. One of his students scored perfect marks on their exam–which in all cases should be great from an evaluation standpoint. At the very least, it couldn’t have hurt his evaluation? 

Turns out it did, and he turned out negative since some of his students had predicted scores greater than the maximum test score. So yeah. The system works.

What also ends up happening is teachers spending time teaching students how to take these tests–rather than actually teaching students what they’re supposed to learn. 


If you’re a student, teacher, or parent, you’ve probably heard the name Pearson before. They’re one of the companies that makes standardized tests. But they also make the test-prep materials for their own tests. And even some tests taken by prospective teacher candidates. Think your child may have an attention deficit problem hindering their ability to take Pearson tests? How about an ADHD test–also administered by Pearson. All of these likely requiring some kind of fee to access. 

If you’re in college, you’ve had your fair share of Pearson encounters with textbooks costing more than $200 just to rent. Then you realize you can’t even get a used book because it comes with an online code that you can only redeem after spending another $80 for access to an online homework system. Oh and also, that textbook you rented isn’t actually a textbook. It’s one of those “loose leaf” things that’s just 500 sheets of paper you need to stick in your own dang binder. Even worse sometimes it’s an eBook that doesn’t even work properly. 

So you return your book, at the end of the quarter or semester, but it turns out, Pearson changed the edition. So your book is now worth $10. What’s in the new edition that makes it worth so much money? 

Oh they just added a sentence or changed one of the practice problems. The content is the same.

Author’s note: I hate Pearson.

If it’s not Pearson telling you “0.5” is wrong because they wanted “1/2,” you’ve probably grown up with your own equivalent. McGraw Hill, perhaps?

The Pearson Problem

Private companies doing stuff in our education doesn’t sound like a bad idea if you’re not overly cynical–especially if they’re doing the job right. What’s the actual problem with standardized tests and private companies?

Well, the problem comes down to profit. In 2015, Pearson brought in roughly $5 billion dollars. They consider themselves a for-profit company too, so if they’re making that much money, you’d think they’d have to be providing a good service. Right?

Wrong. Pearson has had to deal with fines and states no longer working with them because of botched scoring. You can view a list of Pearson’s other issues here. If you’ve used Pearson products anyway, you know the product quality isn’t great–you don’t really have to look hard to find criticisms of Pearson. Like the time they came under fire for recruiting test graders via Craigslist.

Further Reading: Why Are Textbooks so Expensive

The End of the Day

So why do we have standardized tests? Mostly to allocate resources to underprivileged schools–in theory. They’re meant to see where students may be struggling, and in theory also see where teachers are supposed to improve. So it’s a noble cause on paper under things like No Child Left Behind or Every Student Succeeds (Obama). 

But what we got was corporate greed instead.

We’ve got a lot of tests to juggle. Do you know these?