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Standardized Tests: Overview

In this standardized tests overview we will present the pros and cons of the ongoing standardized testing debate. Keep reading for information on different types of standardized tests and the debate about standardized tests.

Standardized tests are tests that attempt to present unbiased material under the same, predetermined conditions and with consistent scoring and interpretation so that students have equal opportunities to give correct answers and receive an accurate assessment. The idea is that these similarities allow the highest degree of certainty in comparing results across schools, school districts, or states. This article provides an overview of standardized tests.

Ways of Categorizing Standardized Tests

There are several ways of categorizing standardized tests. First one might look at high-stakes testing and low-stakes testing. Both types of testing use standardized tests, although low-stakes assessment does not have to. The difference is in the use of the test results. In a high-stakes environment, test results are used to make important decisions about students, teachers, or schools. An example of high-stakes testing is the state level testing that is mandated to document Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

In a low-stakes environment, the effects of test results are less far-reaching, sometimes effecting nothing beyond a student’s grade in a particular subject. This could happen if, for example, a student’s grade on an AP exam was used in part to determine his or her grade in the class for that subject.

Another way to categorize standardized tests is by whether they are norm-referenced or criterion-referenced tests, which may also be referred to as a standards-based test. The “reference” of a test tells what comparisons can legitimately be made with the test results. So, a norm-referenced test is designed to allow comparisons between individual student’s achievement and the achievement of what is thought to be a representative group of the student’s peers­ - a norm group. A criterion-referenced test is designed to allow comparisons between individual student’s achievement and a standard that has been set, often by the state in which the student lives. A “hybrid” test refers to a single test that can have results reported either in terms of a norm reference or in terms of a criterion reference.

The Debate About Standardized Tests

People and organizations have some bones to pick with standardized testing. The main points they make are these:

  • The test questions reveal bias toward a middle-class white background.
  • Because test items differ with different administrations of the test, different test scores may not show differences between students.
  • The tests do not reveal current understandings of how students learn.
  • The multiple-choice format is inadequate for giving instructive information about the student as a whole.
  • The conclusions one can draw from authentic assessment and observation of student work and the student as her or she learns is more valuable than standardized test scores.
  • Concerns with high-stakes testing results is being given too much power to shape curriculum.

Those who believe that standardized tests provide valuable insights counter with the following points:

  • Standardized tests provide a different view than that of the classroom teacher, an important element when a particular child is not being well-served in a particular educational setting for some reason.
  • Standardized tests allow for accountability by revealing how effective a particular program is in covering the content of the test.
  • Standardized tests can reveal achievement gaps between and among students in different groups.
  • Standardized tests are not meant to do everything.
  • Tests that are open-ended in order to reveal more about students are also costlier to administer, and more difficult to score to a standard.
  • Testing is one way to help ensure that students maintain material that they’ve been taught after the particular lesson or unit is complete.


FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing -

Pearson Educational Measurement Group -

Research Review for School Readers By William G. Wraga, Peter S. Hlebowitsh, Daniel Tanner, National Association of Secondary School Principals (U.S.) p. 302 -

The Center for Public Education: The nature of assessment: A guide to standardized testing