Bubbled In: A Look at Standardized Testing (by Alex Boyd, Tonya Davis, Leah Layton, and Allanna McClung)


pencilsA History of Testing

Standardized testing as we know it today comes from a history of attempts to create a method by which to measure knowledge and learning.  The earliest example of standardized testing was created under the Han dynasty in China in the early 200s BC, and was used to select people for civil service in a meritocratic manner.

Perhaps the earliest modern attempt at measuring intelligence is the Binet-Simon scale, developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, and first introduced in 1905 in order to measure intelligence in children.  In 1920, Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton, adapted army tests used in World War I into a method that could be used to screen students for admission.  In 1923, Brigham published A Study of American Intelligence, in which he argued for the natural intellectual superiority of western whites, and furthermore that American education was declining and would “proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”  Brigham would later recant these views as “without foundation.”   In 1926, Brigham created the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, and in 1934 Harvard adopted the SAT to select scholarship recipients.  In 1959, the American College Testing exam, or ACT, was developed by University of Iowa professor Franklin Lindquist.  The SAT and ACT are still used in some form today as the preeminent standardized tests for college admissions, with the SAT’s popularity primarily popular on the American West and East Coasts, and the ACT retaining popularity in the Midwest and South.

A major issue for the implementation and mass adoption of standardized testing was the fact that grading was done manually and therefore took long and longer when assessing increasing numbers of students.  This problem was remedied in 1936, when IBM invented an automatic test scanner that used an electrical current to recognizer marks made by specific pencil lead.  Thus, the era of “bubbled in” answer sheets was born.

Standardized testing became a key component of school in general with the 1965 Elementary and Secondary School Act, which was later updated with No Child Left Behind in 2002.  These laws attempted to measure student progress on the elementary and secondary school level, not only for higher learning purposes like the SAT and ACT.

As a nation that recognizes the importance of education, it only makes sense that we would want a way to measure the progress of the nation’s children in some way.  For this reason, standardized testing has become the (no pun intended) standard for measuring student achievement.  Standardized testing has its detractors.  Common complaints are that standardized testing puts students in a “box” where only memorization is important, and that students that learn in different ways are ill-represented by the tests.  Furthermore, standardized testing tends to test only theory and what can be put on paper, or worse, filled into a multiple-choice bubble.  Standardized tests have also proved stubborn in addressing inequalities in achievement between children of different races or socioeconomic backgrounds.  Finally, detractors argue that real-world learning is not only a better indicator of learning but one that is more useful and applicable to students entering the work force.  Of particular note is the fact that this complaint with standardized testing is centuries old – indeed, a prominent neo-Confucian educator during the Song Dynasty, Ye Shi, argued that “a healthy society cannot come about when people study not for the purpose of gaining wisdom and knowledge but for the purpose of becoming government officials” (Strauss).

However, the age of these arguments also lays bare the fact that we have not come across a viable alternative.  We have 50 million elementary and secondary students in the United States, and it would be cost-prohibitive if not logistically impossible to grade each student on their own merits.  Furthermore, giving a clear target for students to aim for, as opposed to other nebulous “on the child’s terms” endeavors, also helps focus students.  As Lelac Almagor said in the Boston Review:

“The children take (standardized tests) at a zenith of dedication and hopefulness I have no seen equaled in any other context.   Toward the end of the week, some begin to tire; but there is also a growing sense of pride among them, in what they have accomplished, and it carries them through.

Almagor continues on to say that the testing is not the problem when it comes to gaps in achievement between racial, gender, or socioeconomic groups.  The testing merely “seeks to tell the truth” about those gaps, and that unprivileged students are falling behind due to “historical, generational, and systemic inequality.”  In this sense, perhaps there is no test that could erase such gaps, and even if one could, it would likely be so skewed as to be a disservice to the real issues underlying these symptoms.

The issue of standardized testing promises to be one that we as a society will continue to need to address and improve upon.  Education has never been more important, and it has transformed from being merely for the upper classes to something that we feel as a nation should be accessible to all.  The question of whether or not our students are learning and achieving at a high level will therefore perpetually be of the utmost importance.  For now, standardized testing will have to do.  But who knows what the future holds?

A Look At The Modern Testing Industry

These standardized tests fall extremely short of what would be expected. Tests are created and written by a variety of companies, the largest among them being Pearson Education. When looking at Pearson’s job description for their employees who write test questions, they do not require a potential applicant to have experience in the educational field and a bachelor’s degree is not required, just prefered (Pearson). This lack of scrutiny of those who are writing the test questions has shown in a very real and significant way. Teachers and school administrators are breaking their silence about the content of the tests to express their disapproval and anger at the contents. It’s been reported that on the New York standardized tests the vocabulary and reading level on the language arts test are way beyond the grade level of the students. There was a passage on a third grade test that had a reading level of fifth grade. The eighth grade test had students read articles on play ground safety which included vocabulary way beyond the student’s ability. A passage from one of the articles reads, “Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.” (Burris, 2015, par. 24). When these tests don’t have vocabulary which is way beyond the student’s ability, the passages are still downright ridiculous. Take this passage about a talking pineapple for example which begins, “In olden times the animals of the forest could speak English just like you and me. One day, a pineapple challenged a hare to a race. (I forgot to mention, fruits and vegetables were able to speak too).” Moral of the story: “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.” Not only is the story itself confusing, but the questions are even more so. Many of them are entirely subjective and one could argue any of the answers to be the correct one wherein lies the problem: There is only one ‘correct’ answer. (The State of New York University, pineapple and the hare .pdf).

Not only are these test poorly written, but they are also poorly graded. Only 3 states hire teachers or other school staff to grade short answers and essays on standardized tests: New York, Nevada, and Oregon (Rathers, 2011). Standards of what is required of test graders are extremely low in the education companies. Pearson has put out ads for test graders on Craigslist with a bachelor’s degree mentioned as the one of the few requirements. Although Pearson stated a bachelor’s degree is required, when audited they were unable to provide adequate documentation showing that the scorers had any degree at all (Rathers, 2011). Some companies have tests that you must pass to be hired as a grader, however there have been multiple reported cases of those who failed their entrance exam still being hired to grade the standardized tests (Rathers, 2011).

After these sub-par graders are hired, the tests are then graded on a rubric scale. Former test graders report that the rubric failed to take into account student’s creativity and individuality at all. The rubrics were also reported to be confusing and vague and when test scores asked for clarification they were given none. These tests continued on to be scored based on quota rather than merit. Dan Dimaggio, a former test scorer, reports that while working at testing companies he was told,“When I was beginning a project, that last year there were a certain amount of twos, a certain amount of threes, a certain amount of fours. We expect that to be similar this year. If that’s not similar they will tell you we’re scoring too many threes, we’re scoring too many fours. They’ll say you have to learn to see more papers as a three, you have to learn to see more papers as a four” (Rathers, 2011). The scorers are also not given adequate time to accurately be able to grade the short answers and essays. Essays were graded one each minute, short answers graded in five to ten seconds. Todd Farley, a 15 year veteran of the testing industry, had this to say about the industry: “We don’t understand your kids. We don’t understand anyone’s kids.” (Rathers, 2011). That is an unacceptable answer to have from someone who may be determining a child’s future.

Effects On Students and Teachers

Love them or hate them, we cannot seem to get away from standardized testing. But did you have any idea of the anxiety it causes amongst the student population? Imagine taking a test that would determine your performance level in school based on years of work. Test anxiety is a fairly common condition that causes uneasiness or apprehension before, during, or after an examination because of concern or fear. (University of Cincinnati) Almost everyone experiences anxiety before a test, but for some students, the anxiety can be debilitating. It is so debilitating that it can interfere with a student’s education and test taking abilities to such an extent that their grades are negatively affected.

According to an article by Rhema Thompson, “Too Much Test Stress,” a Florida mother, Rebecca Beller, found it surprising that her third-grade daughter Kate Wolfe, came home from school in tears hyperventilating over her Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Near the end of the test, Kate had realized she filled out her bubble sheet wrong. This was Kate’s first time taking a standardized test, but as young as she is, already understood what was in jeopardy. She thought that she would get a low grade because she incorrectly filled in a portion of the test. Under current state rules, students who do not pass this FCAT in third grade face possible withholding from the next grade level. This is an extremely stressful situation for someone who’s development in education is primarily focused on a single test.

A parent and former teacher commented on standardized testing saying, “Kids have become so focused on one test throughout the entire year that they kind of lose focus of all the great things that they’ve experienced throughout the year, all the great teaching that’s taken place with their teacher and they just become so stressed over this one day in their life and I think that’s unfortunate.” Young students are dealing with an incredible amount of anxiety that they are not performing at their highest level out of fear and concern of their testing performance. Anxiety can manifest itself into many psychological and physical illnesses. Students will become ill due to the stress and clinics have seen a spike of anxiety related illnesses during the months of testing. Some students who are experiencing these issues will not even attend school. “They will literally not get out of the car,” said a Jacksonville pediatrician.

A 2009 study was conducted of third and fourth graders in Michigan found that roughly 11% of student experienced severe anxiety. This suggests that 89% of students may have a heightened reaction in a testing situation. This seems to be a problem that we need to fix. While testing anxiety may benefit performance to some degree, too much of it can negatively impact performance levels. Students who are constantly dealing with anxiety associated with testing will be affected long term. They may have low achievement levels, and a negative self-concept.

It doesn’t look like standardized tests are going anywhere anytime soon, so here are some valuable tools to help students who are experiencing anxiety during these times:

  • Get enough sleep before your test.
  • Be prepared and study- hard!
  • Make sure you are eating nutritious foods prior to your test.
  • Take practice exams.
  • Before taking a test, write out your feelings on a piece of paper. Studies have shown that students who have done this prior to test taking experienced a reduction in anxiety while taking the test.
  • Before answering a question on a test, write down on a separate piece of paper everything that you know. This could help you figure out the answer by jogging your memory!
  • Make sure to take time to relax. Stretch your arms and legs and take deep breaths. Practice self-validation.

Standardized tests across the United State have become, well… pretty standard. Many studies have been launched to determine the effects of standardized tests on teachers who administer the exams. These studies have found both positive and negative effects. In schools where test scores are steadily increasing, teachers report that instruction is more advanced and higher order thinking skills are addressed more often in the classroom setting. The teachers who are in more advanced student performance schools tend to take a lot more pride in their work and they are praised for their efforts. However, schools with students who have a lower performance level do not share the same opinions.

An unbelievable amount of pressure is placed on teachers to ensure an increase in success on student test scores. A teacher’s students test scores will be reviewed with the entire staff and the teacher will either be praised or reprimanded based merely on test scores. Depending on the situation, the teacher will change their teaching approach in an effort to raise test scores. Significant time is devoted to testing which can include review worksheets and practice tests. These activities are said to take away from higher-order thinking instruction, which has more long term benefits for students.

In an article called, Why I hate standardized tests: A teacher’s take on how to save public education,” by Robert Hach, we learn of the opinions teachers have in regards to standardized testing. Robert Hach is a teacher and provides a rather interesting take on his feelings with standardized testing. During the beginning of his teaching year he begins by asking the students two valuable questions. “What is the purpose of testing,” and “What happens to the information that students spend all of this time studying for, after the test.” Hach received simple responses from his students.

The students said that the purpose of testing was to test knowledge that has been learned. They also said that the knowledge quickly disappears after the test is taken. If these students are taking a test, where they are required to “learn” information, would it be right to say that they did not in fact “learn” the information if it was forgotten shortly after? According to Hach, testing in public education is not used to assess student learning, but rather to rank the students themselves. Tests have always ranked students into “winners” and “losers,” “successes” and “failures.” What is this saying to our students? Should they be labeled a loser or a failure? I believe more time needs to be spent addressing the educational issues we face. “We need to save public education by reconstructing it in a way that gives willing students the opportunity to learn not only how to know about but also how to change the world in which they live.” (Hach)

The Alternative Methods to Standardized Testing

Standardized Testing: Change the rules

This is an option for those that want to continue with the traditional standardized testing but change the rules on how it is applied. Some options would be to extend the testing over the course of the school year instead of condensing it into one particular week. Another option would be to only take a statistically representative sampling of the students, instead of testing everyone in the school. On the tests themselves the time element could be removed so that students don’t feel pressured to insert random answers just to complete all of the questions before time has been called. And for those students that have reading comprehension issues, they could have the test administered orally so that the students can comprehend what it actually being asked.

Multi-Media Options

Students today use technology to complete everyday tasks. They call friends, text messages, look up assignments, and do research for papers by the tough of a button. Why wouldn’t they be able to take a test the same way? They feel comfortable with a screen and a keyboard instead of a pencil and paper. Providing tools that facilitate comfort and familiarity while taking a test are crucial to getting an accurate reading on the results. If students are uncomfortable while taking these tests it has the potential to reflect on their scores.

Performance Exams

Some schools have moved away from standardized tests in favor of alternate ways to engage the students instead of having them just fill out a bubble on a scantron.

  • Writing creative, narrative, or expository essays is one of these alternate ways. The students are usually given a couple of days to complete their essays and submit their work. From there the essays are sent to a separate location where the written work is judged independently and anonymously on a scale of 1 to 4. Two separate people rate the work and the final score is the average between the two ratings.
  • Oral presentations are another method to rate a student’s progress. In a recorded session, students deliver a presentation on a specific topic that they have researched in order to show that they comprehend the subject matter. Students are assessed on delivery as well as content. This method is useful for students who have good oral communication skills but may have trouble with the written language.
  • The last method used in performance exams involve the use of scientific experiments. Like the oral presentations, students research a certain topic and then create an experiment to prove or disprove their hypothesis. Students can actually reflect on and analyze data instead of just giving answers to questions that are noted in a paragraph.


Parent/Teacher Conferences

Conferences provide the best alternative method for standardized testing. Unfortunately, in today’s busy society, finding the time to accommodate the varying work schedules for teachers as well as parents to meet is almost an impossible task. Whereas one time tests gauge the students’ performance at one point in time, teachers can see a student’s progress over the course of a whole school year. They know if a student is understanding the material and can inform the parent(s) if additional assistance may be needed.

All of these alternate methods can be used instead of utilizing the traditional standardized tests but as with anything else these days, cost is the determining factor. Changing the school’s curriculum in order to support these alternate options would require a lot of time and money which the schools have in short supply. Maybe if enough parents see the value in these alternate programs for their children, they could persuade the government or special interest groups to support these more effective options.



Works Cited

What Schools Could Use Instead Of Standardized Tests. (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/06/371659141/what-schools-could-use-instead-of-standardized-tests


Alternatives to Standardized Tests. (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1n7xTA91riZ3dmPbbSWMCOrJFmvvvs7P-ubliVabyI5w/edit?hl=en_US


If Not Standardized Tests, Then What? (n.d.). Retrieved March 06, 2016, from http://www.standardizedtesting.net/standardized.htm

Anthony, Alicia. The Effects of Standardized Tests on Teachers and Students. Global Post. Copyright 2016 GlobalPost. < http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/effects-standardized-tests-teachers-students-10379.html>

Hach, Robert. Why I hate standardized tests: A teacher’s take on how to save public education. Thanks to tests, my students’ minds have been downsized — while corporate interests profit. Here’s the answer. Copyright © 2016 Salon Media Group, Inc. SATURDAY, SEP 13, 2014 < http://www.salon.com/2014/09/13/why_i_hate_standardized_tests_a_teachers_take_on_how_to_save_public_education/&gt;

Thompson, Rhema. Too Much Test Stress? Parents, Experts Discuss High-Stakes Standardized Test Anxiety. 2016 WJCT NEWS. APR 23, 2014. < http://news.wjct.org/post/too-much-test-stress-parents-experts-discuss-high-stakes-standardized-test-anxiety>

Burris, C. (2015). Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core tests. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/19/educators-alarmed-by-some-questions-on-n-y-common-core-tests/

Pearson Assessments Careers in Test Development. Retrieved from http://www.pearsonassessments.com/careers/test-development-job-opportunities.html

Rather, D. (producer). (2011). Dan rather reports [Episode 630]. Bad score. Episode retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/tv-season/dan-rather-reports-season-6/id414506840

The State University of New York. [.pdf format].




4 thoughts on “Bubbled In: A Look at Standardized Testing (by Alex Boyd, Tonya Davis, Leah Layton, and Allanna McClung)

  1. A wonderful topic to talk about. I took Zapouras class over a year ago, and I remember this section like it was yesterday. Standardized testing is a thing of the past. We use an old outdated system to gauge how present day children are doing. This is problematic because today is not the same as once was. Also as you stated it does the teachers and students a disservice because of the stress involved with the testing. It is unfair for both parties since it does not accurately measure the competency. Thank you for sharing I hope you had fun alon the way.


  2. Wow. I am beyond impressed with the care and attention you guys brought to this project. We all spent so much time through the term listening to one another, reading articles and library readings, building an understanding of standardized testing, but you four brought it to another level! Thank you for supplying us with all of this; great straight forward video, thoughtful blog post. Seriously nice work.

  3. You guys have presented a lot of great information on standardized tests, a lot of it was honestly very shocking and I am glad that you guys took on this important issue. Like Ali said, we talked about standardized tests this term but you guys brought up a lot of interesting information that we had no touched on. Great job!

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