The Business of Standardized Testing

We align standardized tests--and the results of them--with achievement, intelligence, aptitude, and understanding. Those who refute our standardized testing culture spit back all the things you cannot sufficiently summarize by scribbling in a bubble, arguing that these tests aren't examinations of realistic ability, but rather, an unreliable way of forcing rank.

What both sides have left out in terms of how standardized tests align themselves, whether they are measurers of intelligence or oppositional forces to that intelligence, is business. At their core, standardized tests are not equalizers: Contrary to a still-persisting popular belief, they do not offer an "equal opportunity" learning environment. Turns out, academic conformity sells, and business is booming: As of 2011, Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board,nonprofit owner of SAT, was paid $1.3 million. Richard Ferguson, formerexecutive officer of ACT Inc., made roughly $1.1 million. Meanwhile, The National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College reported that the value of the standardized testing market was anywhere between $400 million and $700 million.

Outside the financial dominance held by companies that publish tests--CTB McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin, Pearson, and Harcourt--test prep is a thriving industry unto itself, slipping in another significant expense to a family's already-strained (or nonexistent) college budget: As of 2015, parents spent $13.1 billion on test prep that included preparation, tutoring, and yes, even counseling. The rise of Common Core doesn't just mean an added emphasis on test results and teaching-to-the-test in classrooms, it also streamlined the market for testing, meaning that developers are no longer beholden to fifty different sets of standards, allowing them to make one product, aimed at everyone. That last point is arguably the one that goes unmentioned most often: Standardized testing isn't just about every student meeting the same standards. It is about every student, school, and administrator paying for the same product.

We should pause: When did education become a product, and when did conformity become learning?

The pros of standardized testing are hailed everywhere from school hallways to Facebook statuses: They help students work harder and more effectively. They offer feedback regarding student's skills and knowledge. They provide the opportunity for accountability.

We've circled the wrong answer on this one: Standardized tests don't necessarily force students to work harder, but they do encourage them to memorize more. They offer no perceptible feedback on a student's ability--they can't tell you how you messed up that equation, or why your sentence isn't complete. As for college readiness being predicted via the coveted "perfect" scores? William Hiss, former Dean of Admissions for Bates College, led a study that tracked graduation rates of students who submitted their test scores versus those who did not: A measly .05% of a GPA point separated the test-takers from the non-test-takers, meaning that standardized tests are most proficient at preparing you to be a good standardized test-taker.

We have not yet come to terms with learning outside of the testing bubble, but others have: Finland, ranked 5th on a list of the world's best education systems, does not employ standardized testing. Public schools assess students using "independent tests they create themselves," and as for the "accountability" benefit of testing? Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education, stated: "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

It is worth noting that, as of 2014, the United States did not place in the top ten.

We aren't just into high achievement, as the pressure on students, teachers, and schools to perform well on standardized tests would have us believe. We are into high profits, and we're using our students, their educations, and their futures to do it.

Nothing should be more sacred than learning; nothing should be valued more. But we can hardly consider standardized tests education: They enforce ideas of academic success and future prosperity that are as outrageous as the profit the testing industry rolls in from dependent schools and families. We see dollar signs where we should see the opportunity to teach human beings; we see expertly circled right answers where we should see, simply, learning.

America, put your pencils down. We've gotten the pay day--I mean, the answer--wrong.