Research & Commentary: National and State Standardized Tests

Published June 21, 2011

As Congress gears up to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the largest federal law on education, and various school districts display the fruits of the act’s mandated testing, experts have begun to weigh in on the merits and disadvantages of national and state-administered standardized tests.

NCLB greatly expanded state-mandated standardized testing as a means of assessing school performance, which has generated criticism from both conservatives and liberals. Teacher unions and some educators argue the test results are useless or unfair and burden local schools while leeching class time from other elements of the curriculum. They particularly oppose standardized testing when results reflect poorly on public school teachers, and they reject tying results to teacher evaluations, layoffs, or other means of changing the status quo.

Conservatives tend to reject national standardized testing as increasing federal intervention into local classrooms that distorts or destroys local autonomy. They do, however, generally support using tests to measure teacher performance and, consequently, administrator freedom to hire and fire teachers based on classroom results.

Most required state tests largely tied to NCLB are technically voluntary, joined by states in exchange for large portions of federal education money. No statute allows the federal government to require specific curriculum or testing from states—in fact, NCLB’s progenitor, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, specifically forbids this as a violation of federalism and the Constitution.

The following documents offer additional information on standardized K-12 achievement tests.


Test-Based Incentive Programs Have Not Consistently Raised Student Achievement in U.S.


A report from the National Academy of Sciences in May 2011 shows rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and districts tied to standardize tests have little effect on student achievement. “School-level incentives—like those of No Child Left Behind—produce some of the larger effects among the programs studied, but the gains are concentrated in elementary grade mathematics and are small in comparison with the improvements the nation hopes to achieve, the report says.” The researchers studied 15 tests, including those implemented under NCLB, those tied to incentive pay for teachers, high school exit exams, and pay-students-for-scores programs.


Panel Finds Few Learning Gains From Testing Movement


Education Week



reports on the National Academy of Sciences study and its findings that standardized tests are too narrow to accurately measure progress toward program goals and provide insufficient safeguards to prevent students and teachers from cheating or gaming the system. The report also found high-stakes tests like high school exit exams promote “teaching to the test” rather than increasing the core learning the test is supposed to measure. Since tests are expensive to create and administer, their ineffectiveness is a budget as well as measurement problem.


Many Schools Are Far below Bar Set by No Child Left Behind


This editorial from the Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch excoriates the testing and outcomes requirements of No Child Left Behind for setting an “unrealistic” 100 percent proficiency requirement and creating incentives for states to “backload” requirements in hopes the law would be changed before the higher testing outcomes apply.


Stop the War Against Standardized Tests


Standardized tests are generally accurate in measuring students’ knowledge and form an important part of education, along with standards and learning, argues Hoover Institution Visiting Fellow Herbert Walberg. Tests reveal students’ strengths and weaknesses so teachers can capitalize on the strengths and strengthen the weaknesses. They also cost less than $6 per student and take very little class time.


A Better Conversation Around Data Use in California


In Education Next, Bill Tucker explains how California’s failed education data system can inform states about what works and does not in standardized tests and in using data from them. He says top-down data collection tends to work poorly because it is designed to show compliance with state and federal requirements, whereas the best data and testing systems are designed to help educators improve school systems and in-classroom teaching.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].