The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

34 problems with standardized tests

A picture of the scene in court on Aug. 12, where a judge heard a lawsuit by parents against education officials in Florida. This was drawn by Peyton Mears, an 11-year-old who was at the hearing to support the parents. The woman on the stand is a parent, Michelle Rhea.

In March I wrote about a decision by three justices on a Florida appeals court that said that a standardized reading test is the best way to decide whether third-graders should move to fourth grade — not actual school work or grades.

The case involves a Florida law that says that students who fail a third-grade language arts test can’t move on to the fourth grade (though some exemptions are made). While the policy has not been shown to have a lasting benefit to students, Florida and other states maintain it anyway.

Some third-graders — including honors students — from a number of school districts were denied promotion because they opted out of the test. The parents of those students, who are part of a national testing opt-out movement, went to court and sued their districts. In August, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers ruled that those school districts that had refused to promote the students had been wrong. The case was appealed and the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned her ruling, saying:

The purpose of the ELA is to assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before (and after) being promoted to fourth grade. See § 1008.25(5)(a). The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.

That ruling ignored years of research that shows that high-stakes standardized test scores are not reliable or valid, and it ignored the problems Florida has had with its standardized testing accountability system, which became so severe that school superintendents statewide revolted in 2015 and said they had “lost confidence” in its accuracy.

Here’s a look at all the things standardized tests can’t do, by veteran Florida educator Marion Brady,  who has written history and world culture textbooks (Prentice-Hall),  professional books, numerous  nationally distributed columns (many are available here), and courses of study. His 2011 book, “What’s Worth Learning,” asks and answers this question: What knowledge is absolutely essential for every learner? His course of study for secondary-level students, called “Connections: Investigating Reality,” is free for downloading here. Brady’s website is

A Florida court decision about testing falls “on the side of stupid,” critics say

By Marion Brady

A Florida appeals court delivered a setback to the opt-out-of-high-stakes-testing movement with its March 7 ruling that standardized tests “can only achieve their laudable purpose” if all students “attempt to answer all questions to the best of their ability.” Anything less, the judges said, “is a disservice to the student — and the public.”

At its core the case is to ensure that third-graders are evaluated and passed on to fourth grade based on the entire year’s body of work and the professional opinion of the teacher rather than having to repeat the third grade based on the results of a single test.

With financial support from the Opt Out Florida Network, the litigation continues. The plaintiffs are asking the Florida Supreme Court to rule.

The proceedings illustrate the legal profession’s inability to get it right on matters having to do with teaching and learning. The appeals court’s decision reflects the conventional wisdom that testing is a simple matter. Unacknowledged is the fact that educators have wrestled with the complexities of evaluating learner performance for generations without reaching firm conclusions.

For those involved in or contemplating legal action to try to slow or stop the damage being done by standardized testing, a list of some of its negative consequences may be useful.

The most important thing schools don’t do

Commercially produced machine-scored standardized tests:

• Are unavoidably biased by social-class, ethnic, regional, and other cultural differences.

• Unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep.

• Radically limit teacher ability to adapt to learner differences.

• Provide minimal to no useful feedback to classroom teachers.

• Are keyed to the deeply flawed, knowledge-fragmenting “core” curriculum adopted in 1893.

• Have led to the neglect of play, music, art and other nonverbal ways of learning.

• Hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring.

• Penalize test-takers who think in nonstandard ways (which the young frequently do).

• Give control of the curriculum to test manufacturers.

• Encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators to raise scores.

• Assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known.

• Emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance.

• Produce scores which can be — and sometimes are — manipulated for political purposes.

• Create unreasonable pressures to cheat.

• Use arbitrary, subjectively-set pass-fail cut scores.

• Reduce teacher creativity and the appeal of teaching as a profession.

• Lessen concern for and use of continuous evaluation.

• Have no “success in life” predictive power.

• Unfairly channel instructional resources to learners at or near the pass-fail cut score.

• Are open to scoring errors with life-changing consequences.

• Are at odds with deep-seated American values about individuality and worth.

• Create unnecessary stress and negative attitudes toward schooling.

• Perpetuate the artificial compartmentalization of knowledge by field.

• Channel increasing amounts of tax money away from classrooms and into corporate coffers.

• Waste the vast, creative potential of human variability.

• Block instructional innovations that can’t be evaluated by machine.

• Unduly reward mere ability to retrieve secondhand information from memory.

• Subtract from available instructional time.

• Lend themselves to “gaming” — strategies to improve the success-rate of guessing.

• Make time — a parameter largely unrelated to ability — a factor in scoring.

• Create test fatigue, aversion, and eventual refusal to take tests seriously.

• Hide poor quality test items behind secrecy walls.

• Undermine a fundamental democratic principle that those closest to the work are best positioned to evaluate its quality.

• According to the National Academy of Sciences report to Congress, don’t increase student achievement.

Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems

At the most fundamental level, education policy shaped by standardized test scores is at odds with the deepest of all societal needs — human survival. Inevitable environmental, demographic, technological, institutional, and cognitive system changes require continuous adaptation. Adaptation requires new knowledge. New knowledge is generated by dozens of complex thought processes — hypothesizing, inferring, relating, valuing, imagining, and so on. And of those dozens of complex thought processes, only two — recalling, and applying — can be quantified and measured with sufficient precision to produce a meaningful number.

Schools and school systems that point with pride to their high scores on standardized tests are advertising their willingness to limit students’ thought to a couple of low-level thought processes.

How can that be a good thing?