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4 Interesting Standardized Test Facts & What They Tell Us About Learning

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Young female student practices for a standardized test on a tablet.


  • Teacher Resources

Standardized tests are polarizing. More teachers and parents are questioning the validity of standardized tests, while others insist they are valuable and necessary. 

Let’s look at some of the research surrounding standardized tests and their use. We’ll dive into:

  • The pros and cons of standardized testing for educators and students
  • Interesting facts and the impact these tests carry for students, teachers, and the world of education

What is standardized testing?

Standardized tests are pre-set exams designed to measure student performance, usually based around predetermined grade standards. These tests mostly use multiple-choice or true/false questions to test student knowledge in a particular subject. 

Standardized exams are most often used to measure reading and math progress. Because the questions and answers are the same across the testing population, this type of assessment can share how well an individual student, school, or district is performing compared to the greater population. 

Some of the most common examples of standardized tests are the ACT and SAT, both used for college admission. But students are taking standardized tests throughout their schooling years, sometimes beginning as early as kindergarten.

Benefits of standardized tests

Young student raises her hand in class.

More parents than ever are opting out of testing, and we’ll be digging into plenty of research later pointing away from standardized tests. But these measurements of student and school success have some benefits. 

1. Standardized tests highlight areas for improvement

Where are students in your area struggling? Are they behind grade level in reading or math? If scores are consistently low in certain areas, that can be the data your school district needs to create positive change.

By highlighting areas for improvement, more time and school funding can be funneled to these programs — improving a child’s learning and the chance of future success. 

2. Tests can help schools evaluate their general progress in education

Data helps schools learn their benchmarks and set plans for improvement. Without standardized tests, school districts would need to find other ways to evaluate student needs.  

Low graduation rates can begin to tell the story, but standardized tests can help fill in the details. Are your students performing better or worse than in previous years? Once you have that answer, you can begin to figure out why.

3. Standardized tests help students become comfortable with the testing process

Testing doesn’t end in high school. College courses, graduate programs, professional licensing and skill certifications all require passing tests. 

Even though many students struggle with tests, they are likely to encounter them throughout their lives. And practice is the best way to improve.

4. Testing can be used for teacher evaluations

There may be all sorts of reasons test scores come back low, and all reasons should be considered. Consistently low test scores may indicate a problem with a particular teacher’s curriculum or style of instruction.

While standardized tests should not be used as a direct measure of teacher performance, they can provide some insight into whether a teacher’s methods are working.

5. Tests give some guidance for curriculum design

Standardized tests align with grade-level curriculum standards. As such, test content can be a guide for developing a solid grade-level curriculum. What should students be learning in the sixth grade? Check what the tests are measuring and develop a curriculum to meet those standards. 

6. Standardized testing avoids subjective grading practices

With standardized testing, there are right answers and wrong answers. These tests are a simplified way of measuring knowledge and achievement. While this makes it more difficult to measure complex student understanding, these tests can reveal basic gaps in student knowledge. 

Potential drawbacks of standardized test

Close-up of a multiple choice standardized test.

As thoughts on education change, more and more research highlights the negatives of standardized tests. Here are a few of the most commonly cited drawbacks of standardized testing.

1. Tests can have a negative impact on student confidence

Some kids don’t test well. Others may not have the resources for extensive test prep. Either way, a poor performance on a standardized test can make even high-achieving students doubt their abilities. 

If a child is already struggling, these tests can reinforce the idea that they’re bad at school. Standardized tests are all about how students compare to their peers, and these results can create a negative experience for many students.

2. Testing can create extra stress for students

High-stakes, timed tests are a breeding ground for math anxiety. The importance of these tests is not lost on students. Some, like the ACT, will determine whether or not they get into their college of choice (though some colleges now recognize these issues and are adjusting their admission policies). And when you’re 16 years old, it can feel like one test is determining your whole future.

School districts may also require some district or state testing to be included in a student’s final grade. This leaves students with a history of poor test scores in a constant cycle of worry.

3. Teachers feel pressure to “teach to the test”

When school funding is tied to test scores, teachers often feel they must spend extra time on test prep. This shifts the classroom’s focus away from what their students need to what they must learn to pass a standardized test. 

4. Test scores do not define a student's overall ability

Many people opposed to standardized testing argue that tests do not accurately measure a child’s learning or ability to learn. Rather, it just highlights which students are good at taking tests.

Test-taking is its own unique skill. Good test-takers have often learned how to excel at guessing. Students who struggle with tests may freeze up when they encounter difficult questions, affecting their overall performance. Either way, standardized testing does not tell the whole story of student learning.

5. Standardized tests only measure specific areas

Standardized tests are typically given in reading and math. And because these tests carry so much weight for school districts, other subject areas end up getting pushed aside.

The Every Student Succeeds Act became the nation’s education law in 2015. This was an evolution from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and provided more flexibility to states regarding student assessments.

This is, in part, because under NCLB, 67% of school districts substantially increased the amount of time spent on reading and math; however, it came at the cost of having less time for instruction in art, history and the sciences.

4 Interesting statistics and facts about standardized testing

Two students write a practice test together in a classroom.

Do any of these surprise you?

1. Urban schools are tested more frequently

Research from 2014 by the Center for American Progress shows that schools in urban areas test students twice as often as schools in suburban areas. All grade levels in urban schools spend more time testing than their suburban peers, but in high school the difference is huge. Urban high school students spend 266% more time taking district-offered tests than their suburban high school students! 

While testing can help show areas for improvement, having too much testing (or as the research paper states, “testing overload”) can take away from other areas of instruction and increase testing anxiety.

2. Math scores are easier to improve compared to reading

Many reading skills are developed early in life. Early exposure to lots of words (and books) can set the stage for early reading success. Even though schools play an important role in learning to read, they are building on the foundation created at home.

For these reasons, it’s often easier to improve math scores on standardized tests. Math can be drilled and practiced to increase testing numbers. But whether or not these higher test scores indicate a true understanding of math concepts is up for debate.

3. Standardized testing is still popular among parents

Well, this statement was at least true in 2014. But even then support was waning. More recent research isn’t available, but it would be interesting to see the current numbers after almost two years of living with COVID-related school closures. 

Many parents agree that standardized testing is important for keeping their kids on track. Even though there has been a lot of talk about postponing testing over the last year, it’s more difficult to find parents who want to opt out altogether. But the opt-out community certainly exists and seems to be growing in numbers.

4. Students take over 100 standardized tests from pre-k to grade 12

This is a shocking one. In this research from 2015, the average number of standardized tests in the United States was 112. That means plenty of students are taking well over that amount in their educational lifetime. And all of this testing is taking away from valuable instructional time.

Potential impact of standardized testing on students

Lone student sitting on a desk in front of blackboards.

It’s easy to see how standardized testing can have a big impact on a student’s learning and their opinion on their achievements. 

For those who score in the top percentiles, these tests can be affirming. These students are more likely to feel set up for future success in both college and their chosen profession. But even these high-performing students can feel the downsides of testing anxiety, perfectionism, and high competition.

Other students who struggle with testing can internalize poor results and struggle with key social emotional skills. They can be left feeling stuck or like they’re bad at school. They may cut short career plans because they feel like college is out of reach. Even if these students earn high grades, they may feel less intelligent than their higher-scoring peers.

Even though testing data is important for school districts, we need to further examine if standardized testing is providing benefits to current students.

Potential impact on teachers

Testing doesn’t only affect students. Teachers are feeling the pressure of frequent testing as well. 

Teacher performance is often linked to test scores. This limits teachers to focusing their curriculum on the tests. And while this may help keep a classroom on track, it also leaves little room for educators to teach to their students’ individual needs. 

At the urging of school administrators, teachers are spending more time on test prep than ever before. And this is taking away from valuable teaching time. Is this instruction preparing students for life beyond standardized testing? Many would say no.

Prodigy can help with standardized test prep

If you feel stuck in the testing cycle, there are tools and resources to help! Prodigy Math’s free Test Prep tool for teachers helps you:

  • Make reviewing key skills an adventure for your students
  • Pinpoint learning gaps with real-time reports as students play
  • Adjust your lesson plans to make sure your students are ready for the big day

If you're a parent, your Prodigy account helps you track your child's learning as they play — so even when they play at home, they're still building key math skills.

Ready to save time and bring fun back to math? Create your teacher or parent account today!

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