Thoughts on Standardized Testing


Kieran Quebman and Alexis Binkley

The harsh fluorescent lights glare down on rows of students nervously filling bubbles on a menacing Scantron. Legs frantically bouncing, adrenaline furiously pumping, pencils tediously scribbling. The clock winds down as the window of opportunity to prove one’s intelligence closes. This circumstance is far from unfamiliar to American students. And the general sentiment is clear –  tests suck! The average American child spends 15 days a year taking state and national tests! The standardized test is a pillar of modern American education. Where did it come from?


In order to truly understand why we have constant testing, we have to understand how our school system came to be, and for that, we must look back to colonial times. When figures like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were coming of age, the school was nothing like what it is today. Children were educated in small schoolhouses. “Grades” as we know them didn’t exist,  as students of various ages intermingled. Curricula focused on practical skills that would help students in daily life. This education fostered an independent and creative spirit. Students rarely stayed in school past the age of 13. After that, a student would enter the real world and get a job, where they could learn more specific vocational skills. Tests were almost non-existent. There was no need to measure or compare student’s performance- their success would be determined by their actions in the real world.


This decentralized American school system was successful for hundreds of years. However, when The U.S began to industrialize, the independent livelihoods fostered by the school system became a hindrance to the economy. For most families, industrialization meant moving away from an independent, pastoral lifestyle and into a factory-based city lifestyle. In order to produce goods on a mass scale, we needed millions of workers to fit together like cogs in a machine. This meant that it became enormously more profitable for schools to develop children into the aforementioned cogs, instead of independent, creative citizens.


So this was the problem facing the Titans of Industry in the late 19th century- how could they change the school system to accommodate the rapidly changing economy? Mass production means standardization. In order to mass-produce shoes, phones, cars, and everything else you use on a daily basis, the process was standardized. To mass-produce obedient citizens that easily fill the spots of cogs in the gargantuan machine that is the post-industrial American economy, the process had to be standardized.


Testing allows administrators to collect mass amounts of data on the supposed “performance” of their students. While this data might be useful, it fails to account for the large number of intelligent students that might not fit the specific criteria that are tested for. Individuals are inherently different, so when tested on the same criteria on a mass scale, of course some are going to do poorly. As the old allegory says, “If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, of course, it’s going to do poorly!”. A standardized system penalizes deviation from the norm. That deviation from the norm is what makes life interesting. The fact that no one person is the same means we can explore our differences and be unique. The school system seeks to take that from us in order to fuel the economy and support big business.


Once you realize why we are constantly tested, where this system originated, it becomes easier to see through the fog. Individuals are so much more than a score on a test, or a grade in a class. So many students become obsessed with their grades, their test scores, or what college they got into, thinking it will afford them more success and higher status in life. Sadly, this is mostly an illusion. No job interviewer will ever ask what your ACT score was or if you got an A in Chemistry. Keep this in mind the next time you’re stressing over a test. Don’t let yourself fall victim to the standardized testing paradigm. You are not standard —  you’re so much more.