Lane Wright is Director of Policy Analysis at Education Post. He is focused on telling stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better, and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor.
Every state uses standardized tests to find out how students in public schools are doing. Federal law requires it. But why? And how do standardized tests actually help students?
The short answer: Standardized tests are a spotlight that helps education leaders see what effect schools are having on students. With that information they can make changes to address students’ needs.
Like any spotlight, state tests cannot shed light on the entire scene, but they can illuminate some of the trouble spots and positive signs along the path to providing a better education.
STRESSED-OUT STUDENTS IS NOT THE GOAL
It’s not hard to find stories of parents and students who feel the pressure during testing season, or those who are concerned about how much time test prep takes away from class time.
But the purpose of state tests isn’t to test individual students (or to stress them out); it’s to check the education system as a whole. The results are a reflection on school leaders at the local, district and state levels.
It’s also important to note: Not all tests are from the state. Individual schools, teachers and school districts may issue their own tests that have nothing to do with the state-required one. Those tests may come with their own set of consequences. Schools don’t always make it clear which is which, so if you’re not sure, ask your principal.
STANDARDIZED TESTS HAVE AN INDIRECT, BUT IMPORTANT IMPACT ON STUDENTS
Standardized tests help principals and other school leaders figure out which groups of students are struggling and gives them the evidence they need to push for changes.
Before we had standardized tests, some might have been able to intuitively sense which students were falling behind, but they didn’t have much in the way of hard evidence to back it up. Without evidence, it’s hard to justify the sometimes uncomfortable changes needed to help students. And as someone once said, if nothing changes, then nothing changes.
The impact on your student may not be direct, and it may not be immediate, but it still matters. Lower-income families, Black, Hispanic, Latino and Native American students, students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language are all groups of students who tend to struggle the most in our public schools. Add them all up, and in many areas that’s a majority of the students in almost any given district.
White students who are comfortably in the middle class are performing better than those groups on average, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing well. Take White eighth-grade students, for example, whose families make enough to pay for school lunch (in other words, they don’t qualify for a free and reduced-price lunch program). For the last decade, only about 44 percent of those students have met the proficiency standard in reading.
Without standardized tests, we wouldn’t know any of that. And without knowing, education leaders couldn’t effectively make decisions on new programs, teacher and staff changes, or where to target additional funding to produce better outcomes for kids.
Pretty much nobody likes to take tests, but almost everyone agrees we need to know how well schools are doing. And while there are some valid criticisms about the limitations of tests, clearly having an imperfect test is better than no test at all. Just like having a spotlight is better than feeling our way in the dark.