Why Standardized Tests should be Changed, but not Removed

Cole Lorig
10 min readMar 15, 2021

In recent years, many colleges and universities have found themselves to be shifting towards a test optional application. This means students are no longer required to submit standardized test scores, such as the SAT or ACT, as a part of their application. This movement was accelerated by the pandemic and the difficulties involved in administering the test, but it has been going on before the pandemic had started. Standardized testing used to be considered an objective way of determining a student’s intelligence, but views are shifting about its’ objectivity. Through an examination of the advantages and disadvantages of standardized testing, as well as an analysis of the fairness of the current system, it was found that while the system of standardized testing remains beneficial and necessary for both schools and colleges, the system does not provide an equal opportunity for upward social mobility for each student. The system must be adjusted in order to promote the meritocratic ideals that standardized testing strives to embody.

In the eyes of many, the goal of public education is to provide students a solid foundation in the subjects of English literacy, grammar, math, science, and social studies, but this is not the only reason for education. Horace Mann, the father of the common school, spearheaded the public-school movement in an effort to make sure that each student received an education regardless of wealth. This is important because beyond just providing knowledge, public education provides students with opportunity, regardless of background or financial situation. Opportunity is one of the greatest resources one can have because it represents the chance to experience upward social mobility.

Source: https://www.azquotes.com/author/9393-Horace_Mann

Social mobility is the movement of individuals or groups through a social hierarchy, often referring to the hierarchy of social class. The most famous example of society’s obsession with promoting upward social mobility is the prominence of the American Dream. The American Dream is that anyone, from any background, can succeed if they work hard enough and it is the epitome of meritocracy. The problem with creating a perfect meritocracy is that it only works if each individual has the opportunity to display their ability. One way in which the education system has attempted to exemplify a meritocratic system is through standardized testing, where the intelligence of every student is determined by the same test graded in the same way. Although it was intended as an objective measuring stick, standardized testing has also been one of the biggest obstacles for students working to achieve upward social mobility. This would cause many to argue for the removal of these test, but are standardized tests the problem, or is it the system in which standardized tests are used that fails to provide students with equal opportunity? In order to determine whether the system of standardized testing is constructive in promoting equal upward social mobility, one must look at whether they are beneficial, and if so, where the current system is failing to provide these benefits for everyone.

To determine whether or not standardized testing is beneficial, we begin by looking at the individual effects on a student. In a cognitive psychology research paper from students at the University of Illinois, it was found that implementation of testing improves memory as well inference and transfer skills. Testing forces students to learn how to extract prior knowledge and encourages them to focus on what they do not know so that they may remember it in the future. The other side to the issue is that standardized testing puts young students in stressful situations. Teachers and parents will often put a great amount of pressure on students to succeed on these tests and high-pressure situations can affect a student’s performance and possibly their health. The thing about stress though is that not all stress is bad. According to Healthline, a medical media outlet, short-term stress can be beneficial to your health because it helps you cope with serious situations. Researchers from California Berkeley found acute stress kept animals more alert and attuned to their environment with no short-term health effects. Advantages of small amounts of stress can be seen in the graph below. Repeated high-pressure situations can be dangerous for the health of young students, but slowly introducing them to these types of environments can be beneficial in the future.

The graph from Berkeley News shows that for maximum cognitive and mental performance, some stress is required, but too much stress leads to low performance

Beyond the benefits for the individual student, the scores of the tests are also indicators of the success of a school. Not only does it hold each student accountable for ensuring they are learning the necessary information, but it holds each school accountable to ensure that they are teaching the required material. Aaron Churchill from The Thomas B. Fordham Institute explains how The information gained through standardized testing enables policymakers to identify the schools that need intervention. It has been found to be the most objective way to determine which school systems are failing and require things such as a change in leadership or additional funding.

High schools are not the only ones that use standardized testing to judge their students as colleges have been doing it for a long time. Since the beginning of the 20th century, students have been required to submit standardized test scores for many reasons. One purpose for requiring standardized test scores is, in the words of Marilyn McGrath, the director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard College, “It helps us calibrate a student’s grades.” It allows the admissions team to interpret and judge a student’s academic performance compared to the applicant pool. The need for calibration is caused in part by the idea of grade inflation, the pressure put on by administration and parents for teachers to give out higher grades, which has led to a rising GPA average across the country. Samantha Lindsay from PrepScholar reports that from 1990 to 2009, the average GPA rose from 2.68 to 3.00. Whether this inflation has been caused by increased pressure or a myriad of outside factors, one thing that is certain is that grade inflation has led to an increase in students with a competitive GPA. Grade inflation shows no sign of slowing down and this only emphasizes the need for standardized testing in the admissions process. Students come from a diverse range of high school and most applicants have competitive GPAs so there is a need for calibration through standardized testing.

Source: https://times-herald.com/news/2020/06/sat-testing-will-resume-in-august

Another purpose for standardized testing comes from Princeton Review, a college admissions service. In their words, “The purpose of the SAT is to measure a high school student’s readiness for college.” The ultimate goal of most admissions committees is to find the students that will have the most success while attending and after graduating from their university, and the standardized test helps them determine this. Camara and Croft report that in January of 2020, the California Standardized Testing Task Force completed a yearlong review of using testing as a college admissions tool and found that the value of admissions test scores in predicting college success has increased since 2007. A common argument against standardized testing is that some students are not good test takers, whether it be the pressure, the timing, or the environment, and while the test does put them at a disadvantage, this is not a reason we should remove tests. Standardized testing is a not a system that determines overall intelligence because if it was, would it not be useful to employers? It is used mostly by colleges to determine whether or not a student can be successful at their university. These colleges and universities will also have tests that take place in timed and high-pressure environments and although it may seem unfair to individuals that are not natural test takers, colleges need a way to ensure that a student is prepared to succeed through all the stresses and difficulties that they will face. If the goal of the admissions committee is to find the students that will have the most success while attending the university, standardized testing remains the most effective measure.

Standardized testing has shown that it benefits the systems that have established them as well as students within the system, but this is only positive if it benefits each student equally. One of the major inhibitors of the success of standardized testing is the inequality seen in the scores of different social classes. In 2013, College Board, the organization responsible for tests such as the SAT and AP tests, published information comparing SAT scores of students of different economic statuses. It was found that a higher family income had a direct correlation with higher SAT scores as shown in the table and graph below.

The data from College Board on the chart above was visualized on a scatterplot which shows a clear correlation between higher income and average SAT scores.

It appears that money has a direct correlation to standardized test success, but causation cannot be assumed until an explanation is found. To begin with, tests cost money. The SAT can be taken as many times as the student wishes, but each attempt costs $46. Wealthy students are able to attempt the test many more times and this can lead to higher scores. In the words of Manhattan Review “Subsequent test attempts can result in higher scores if students acquire improved test-taking ability and familiarity with the test.” Some of the wealthier student also have the luxury of hiring tutors and signing up for programs designed to train students for the tests. The image below shows the different levels of preparation available through Princeton Review, one of the most popular sites for standardized test preparation. The cheapest option is listed at $699 with the most expensive option starting at $233/hour.

Expensive tutoring courses offered by Princeton Review claim to guarantee higher scores.

Beyond paying for tests and preparation, less affluent students may not always have the ability to use their Saturdays to take the test. They may work or be responsible for family members and have difficulty finding the time to take the test or even study. Access to resources allows people to use their advantage to get better scores and get into better schools. Standardized tests claim to be an objective judge of knowledge and academic ability, but objective does not always mean it is fair and this data shows how standardized testing is not providing equal opportunity for upward social mobility for those without wealth.

Social class is not the only area where there are noticeable differences between scores. Race has also been seen to play a factor in the success of standardized testing. In the same College Board study, the following data was collected about scores and ethnicity.

The data shows how the white and Asian students have significantly higher scores in each of the three sections than the other ethnicities. It comes as no surprise to learn that these two races have also been the racial groups with the highest median income throughout the past 50 years, as reported by the US Census Bureau.

The median household income by race shows the Asian and white (non-hispanic) ethnic groups have consistently been the highest earning households over the past 50 years.

Race and income are two areas that have been closely intertwined through much of American history and this has been very noticeable in the realm of education. There continues to be unequal funding for primarily black schools compared to schools that are primarily white. The Washington Post reports that there is a $23 billion racial funding gap for schools and one reason for this is that in many states property tax helps to fund the schools. This means that the wealthier the residents of the district, the better the school system will be. African Americans have faced a long history of oppression regarding housing and these primarily African American areas are often poorer than the white areas. Watch the video below from Fusion for a brief history of systemic housing policies that have disadvantaged African Americans. America’s inequality has caused a disparity in housing which has had a direct impact on education and test scores. Meritocracy is based on the idea that those with the best ability will be the ones that succeed, but the data shows that wealth and race may play just as big of a factor. The current system of standardized testing fails to meet the standards for an equal meritocratic system and should be changed to make system beneficial to everyone.

A short history of some of the racist housing policies in the United States

Before we quickly ban standardized testing, it is important to make sure we are not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Even though the current system does not provide equal opportunity, it still provides opportunity. Standardized testing allows each student that takes the test the chance to show their ability and prove they deserve to experience upward social mobility. Testing has the ability to use meritocratic values in order to ensure success for all that deserve it, but it cannot equally promote upward social mobility until it doesn’t just standardize how students are compared but standardizes the opportunities that each and every student is given. Fixing the inequality in standardized testing would be immensely difficult, but there are numerous reasonable steps that can be taken to improve the current system. It begins with things such as lowering the cost of tests or offering free attempts to low-income households. It is helped along by schools offering free test prep programs and resources that students can take home to help themselves prepare for the test. One of the most important changes would be that colleges be required to look at scores alongside socioeconomic status. The current system of standardized testing does not promote upward social mobility for every student, but changes can be made to turn standardized testing into a system that embodies the idea of meritocracy.



Cole Lorig

Undergraduate student at Northeastern University