Education: Standardized Tests, Explained

<a href="">Alyssa Becker</a>/Flickr

Let’s face it: Jargon happens. And in education circles, it happens a lot. Curious what a buzzword actually means? Or how a seemingly unrelated concept migrated into discussions about kids and schools? Let MoJo‘s education team research it so you don’t have to. Help us decide what lingo to look at next by leaving suggestions in comments.

This week’s education primer: “STANDARDIZED TESTING.”

It’s springtime in the U.S. of A, which for millions of kids and teachers means just one thing: Standardized tests. Be prepared for acronym soup.

What are “standardized tests,” and when did they become required in the American public education system? When teachers talk about high school “standardized tests” these days, they’re not talking about the SAT. They mean federally mandated, timed, ‘one set of multiple choice questions fits all’ tests designed to measure students’ performance in basic subjects like math and reading. Each state decides how to define educational proficiency, and tests use a minimum of three scores: Below Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Some governmentally required standardized testing isn’t new: Since 1969, the federal Department of Education has given the National Assessment of Educational Progress test to American students to monitor their educational achievement. The feds didn’t start requiring states to develop their own standardized tests, however, until 1994, when the Clinton administration changed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. (President Johnson created ESEA during the War on Poverty to reduce achievement gaps in public K-12 education.) What the Clinton administration did in 1994 was start requiring that every state receiving federal money for high-poverty schools (i.e. Title 1 funds) begin testing third through eighth graders annually in math and reading. President George W. Bush subsequently moved the testing ball down the court with the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test fourth and eighth graders in math and reading every two years. Tests in subjects like science and writing are optional. Other than the NAEP test and state math and reading assessments, NCLB requires states to give science assessments at least once during grades three to five, six through nine, and ten through twelve. For these assessments (such as California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test, Maryland’s School Performance Assessment, and Georgia’s Iowa Basic Skill Test) each state designs the questions on its own test. If you’re thinking that students are now getting tested more than ever, you’d be right.

What happens to test scores once they’re collected?

Once state test scores are in, NCLB requires states to separate scores based on students’ ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Then the district sends a report card of these results to parents, teachers, and the media.

How are students directly impacted by their scores?

It depends on the school, but they’re frequently not. Some states, like Massachusetts, require students to pass state assessments to graduate from high school. In Utah, teachers can also use standardized test scores to grade students. But like several Mission High students have noted, college admissions don’t depend on the STAR test. Thus motivation to improve school test scores can take creative forms.

How are teachers and schools impacted by student scores?

It depends on the state. If Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs the ‘merit pay’ bill currently on his desk, teachers in Florida will get raises depending on whether their students score well on standardized tests. In Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver, schools were shut down or sold to charters because of repeatedly low standardized test scores. Whole teaching staffs in Nevada, Ohio, and Rhode Island have been fired because of test results. School, district, and state funding are tied to standardized test scores.

States are required to make sure schools tested make what’s called “Adequate Yearly Progress” each year so that by 2014, 100 percent of students will be labeled proficient. If schools don’t make Adequate Yearly Progress, states are required to take certain steps.

Let’s say third graders at Any School USA don’t score higher on their standardized tests than last year’s third graders. Then Any School USA is put on a watch-list and could get labeled “in need of improvement.” It could also get money to raise test scores. If next year’s third grade class scores lower than last year’s third graders, Any School USA gets publicly labeled “in need of improvement” and now its required to develop a two-year improvement plan for the subject kids are scoring low in. At this second strike, Any School USA students are given the option to transfer to a better school within the school district, if one exists. If Any School USA misses its AYP for a third year in a row, the school has to offer free tutoring and other supplemental education services to struggling students. If a school misses its AYP target for a fourth consecutive year, the school gets labeled as requiring “corrective action,” which might involve the wholesale replacement of staff, introduction of a new curriculum, or extending the amount of time students spend in class. The fifth year of low AYP scores at Any School USA results in plans to restructure the entire school; the plan is implemented if the school misses its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row. This means Any School USA may get closed, turned into a charter, or handed over to a private company or the state office of education to run.

Why are some people unhappy with this system?

Schools are cutting back on teaching science, social studies, and art to become proficient in math and reading tests by NCLB’s 2014 deadline, The New York Times‘ Sam Dillon reports. This is the reason the US lags so far behind other countries when it comes to science proficiency, researchers told The Hechinger Report. Also to make the goal, more than half of states have lowered their standards to redefine “proficient.”

Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said standardized tests “rely mainly on multiple choice items with fill-in-the-bubble answers. They generally provide time-sensitive data and results months later, when their instructional usefulness has expired. Typically, students take a state assessment in March or April—and get the results mailed to them after school is out.” A Pennsylvania mother decided not to let her two kids take the Keystone State’s two-week-long standardized test, CNN reports. Standardized tests don’t accurately measure accomplishments and they’re used to punish schools, Michele Gray, the mom of a 9 and 11-year-old boy, told CNN. Duncan agrees. “It is no secret that existing state assessments in mathematics and English often fail to capture the full spectrum of what students know and can do,” Duncan said last year. While advocating a new generation of math and English tests for the 2014-15 school year, Duncan added: “Schools may give lots of tests—often too many—but the assessments aren’t always testing important knowledge and skills.” On the other hand, Duncan said the new tests for the 2014-15 school year will assess students’ ability to read complex text, incorporate technology to simulate problems, and better measure growth in student learning.


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