The prevalent use of standardized tests has caused much controversy in recent years. Some feel that they have an important place in helping to assess student ability and school quality, while others feel that they have very little validity, and detract significantly from our children's educational experience. A great deal of studies have been published in attempt to understand the true effect that standardized tests have on education, yet there has been little consensus among opposing sides. No matter one's position on the subject, a clear understanding of both the pros and cons of standardized testing will aid our country in its quest to improve the quality of education for all of our students. If administrators and policy-makers would take into account both the benefits and the drawbacks of standardized testing, they could work to create educational policies that take advantage of the data that standardized tests offer, while not allowing test bias or an overemphasis on test scores to detract from our student's education.
The driving force behind the prevalent use of standardized tests in school districts across the country is a belief that they will hold schools and teachers accountable for each student, and that no child will be allowed to slip through the cracks. This is essentially the premise of the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002, which uses standardized test scores to determine whether or not schools are making adequate progress. In a recent report from the US department of education entitled "Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act" (2007), George W. Bush reiterates that this policy is first and foremost an effort to end "the soft bigotry of low expectations" (p 1).
In addition to bridging the achievement gaps between minority populations and wealthier populations, Bush also stated that: "NCLB is an important way to make sure America remains competitive in the 21st century. We're living in a global world. See, the education system must compete with education systems in China and India. If we fail to give our students the skills necessary to compete in the world of the 21st century, the jobs will go elsewhere" (Hursh, 2007, 498). Proponents of NCLB, argue that standardized tests are the best tool that we have at our disposal to determine whether schools are truly bridging the achievement gaps and preparing students to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.
The reason that standardized tests are an indispensable part of school success according to proponents of NCLB, stems from their belief that it is impossible to know if students are learning anything without assessment. Grant Wiggins, author of Understanding by Design (2006), offers a humorous, but poignant anecdote about what happens when assessment is not incorporated into classroom instruction: A teacher claims to have taught his dog to talk, yet when the teacher's friend wants to see proof of the dog being able to talk, the teacher modifies her claim: "I taught him to talk, but I didn't say he learned it" (p. 228). Without evaluation, neither teachers nor students can ever know if they have grasped the material that has been taught, and they become the talking dogs that have not actually learned to talk. Without evaluation, teaching can become a dull and listless act that fails to take into account whether students are actually learning and whether they are able to analyze and create meaning out of the new experiences they have had in class.
Richard Phelps explains the benefits of standardized tests in Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing (2003), which has been called the definitive defense of standardized testing. Phelps and other proponents of standardized