Are Standardized Tests Fair?

Autumn Zielke

Standardized tests have been around for a while, and not a lot of people seem to like them. Many think that these tests serve no purpose and should be done away with for good. But what are standardized tests? And what purpose do they serve?

Standardized tests are tests that evaluate what students have learned in school by some common standard, and are administered and graded in a constant, “standard” way. They are given to students at a set time every year. Each test has a different purpose. For example, the Reading Inventory (RI) test is given two times: once at the beginning of the year and once at the end. It is used to evaluate reading comprehension and improvement. The ACT and SAT, by comparison, are used to evaluate a student’s readiness for college.

The purpose of these tests is to collect data. That data is then compared to the scores of students from across the country. It is used to evaluate how well teachers are teaching a subject. This data is not just used by teachers and schools—parents use it too. It allows them to see how their children are doing compared to their peers, and to assess whether they need any extra help.

Even though these tests are used to collect and compare data, they often focus on demonstrating memorized material over showing actual knowledge. Many standardized tests only test your ability to remember certain pieces of information. Their questions are multiple choice and only ask you about a specific problem or piece of information, leaving little room for the active demonstration of knowledge. They often don’t allow you to show how you know the answer: they have a set right answer and don’t care about anything other than that.

“Rather than showing what you’ve learned, they show your ability to retain information,” said Celia-Marie Bartholomew, a sophomore at West. They do this by not deviating from specific question types. These questions allow them to quickly grade and collect data. They don’t want to spend a lot of time grading paragraph answers. They want it to be easy, so they use these types of questions. They are purely designed to be easy to grade and to focus on memory. 

For this reason, standardized tests are also a poor source of teacher evaluation. Students may forget the material due to trouble with memorization or test anxiety: “With standardized tests usually covering an entire years’ worth of information, I find it difficult to remember and apply everything I’ve learned in the past school year.” said Celia-Marie. Including more short-answer questions, essay questions, and allowing students to show their work can help solve this issue. It would allow graders to more effectively assess how teachers taught material and how their students remembered it. Additionally, providing teachers with an outline of what is on an upcoming standardized test will allow them to plan their lessons in a way that focuses on what students need to know.

Some of these tests can determine whether you graduate high school or college. “If my graduation depends on me remembering tiny details about one conversation we had in the beginning of the year, I think that’s rather unfair, especially considering that these tests tend to reflect our future and the opportunities we have for it,” said Celia-Marie. Some information that appears on tests may not be covered in detail in classes or homework, plummeting students’ confidence levels while testing. This can affect their test scores and even their future careers.

I asked two students at West about changes that they would like to see in standardized testing, and the reasons why. Celia-Marie said that she “would like to see the application of knowledge one has learned, instead of the regurgitation one must use to not fail a specific class.” This would allow students to show what they know and how well they know it instead of just filling in information for a specific subject. This could be applied in the format of the test and the questions. Alternating different types of questions could also improve standardized testing, allowing students to both be tested on memorization and demonstrate deeper knowledge.

I also interviewed Ana Dos Santos, a freshman at West. She said that she would “change everything”. She doesn’t like taking standardized tests because of the amount of pressure that they place on her. This is a problem that all students face during tests. The amount of questions and the tests’ time limit can affect how well students think they can do. And, if the test determines what college they go to and what kind of career or job they will get, a low test score can make students feel like they can’t succeed in life.

Standardized tests serve an important purpose, but the way they are set up and the way they are used is not fair. If we add more questions through which students can actively show their knowledge, we can make standardized tests more useful and more fair.