Standardized Testing Essay

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The term standardized testing is variously understood. For instance, some equate standardized testing as the delimiter to college entrance and predictor of academic success, whereas others see these examinations as sociocultural gatekeepers, testing only a limited portion of the schooling experience. This entry describes typical standardized tests, takes a brief look at their history, and summarizes their pros and cons.


No precise definition of standardized testing has been agreed on, and debate as to the meaning of the term continues. However, over the years, academic researchers have suggested that standardized tests are different from other forms of assessment in that they contain all of the following characteristics: (a) they are interpreted with reference to a norm group, (b) administration occurs under standard conditions, (c) they are designed by specialists in the content and measurement area, and (d) they are scored objectively.

There are many different types of standardized tests, each classified into one of the following four categories: mental ability, aptitude, and intelligence; achievement; diagnostic; and attitudes/interests. The testing category of mental ability, aptitude, and intelligence includes the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and Wechsler series of scales, which can be administered individually or to a group. Today, these tests are rarely implemented in the classroom but are frequently used by educational and clinical psychologists.

The Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) all fall under the category of achievement tests. Although some test makers argue that many of these examinations are actually some measure of aptitude (i.e., SAT and GRE), they are classified as achievement tests because they are dependent on the instruction received by the test-takers and are always performed on a group of students.

The category of diagnostic tests includes examinations that specify the test-takers’ strengths and weaknesses in a given content area; these exams are usually administered to individuals. The final classification of standardized tests, attitudes/interests, includes the Kuder Occupational Interest Schedule, which measures possible career paths for students, and other attitudinal measures that describe student self-concepts to academic and social constructs.

Historical Background

The evolution of standardized tests has an interesting history. The first recorded use of standardized tests dates back to 2200 BCE, when Chinese emperors developed a rigorous examination for public service officials. Serving the emperor of China was one of the highest positions a citizen could attain at the time, and measuring competency in a consistent manner was considered important. Over the years, the test became refined and “standardized,” being used until 1905.

The modern development of standardized testing originates in the late nineteenth century with the work of Sir Francis Galton. In 1884, Galton conducted an anthropological study that required the collection of person-specific characteristics, including weight and height. Eventually, researchers such as James McKeen Cattell and his students extended Galton’s work into the development of tests measuring psychological constructs.

In 1904, Alfred Binet finished his work on creating a new scale to measure intelligence, which he termed intelligence quotient (or IQ), becoming the first major construct measured by a standardized test. World War I saw the implementation of the Army Alpha, a standardized intelligence test deployed to determine the mental capacity of drafted soldiers. However, educational testing in the mainstream society would not be widely imposed until the 1930s with the development of the SAT and the first mass-produced test-scoring machine.

Pros And Cons

Standardized tests have many desirable qualities for statisticians, measurement specialists, practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. For instance, standardized test marks form a normal distribution of scores allowing for the calculation of percentiles, stanines, and t scores. A normal distribution of scores is such that 68 percent of the students’ marks will lie one standard deviation (a measure describing the spread of scores around the arithmetic average or mean) from the arithmetic mean (or average score), 96 percent of the scores lie two standard deviations from the mean, and 99 percent of the scores lie three standard deviations from the mean.

Percentiles describe the rank order of a score, ranging from 0 to 100; for instance, a 95th-percentile score indicates that 95 percent of the scores on a standardized test lie below that mark. Stanines, or “standard nines,” approximate a range of percentiles into one of nine values; for instance, the percentile range 0–4 is summarized into a stanine value of 1. The t scores are simply the transformation of any distribution of scores to one that has a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 10. Other calculating features of standardized tests include computing reliability coefficients and constructing standard errors of measurement.

Standardized testing during the twentieth century has produced both positive and negative effects in educational, psychological, and sociological realms. One positive effect has been the simplification of college admissions through the use of standardized examinations. Prior to standardized testing, college admissions was a tedious process involving interviews and content testing, resulting in a loss of time for professors involved in research. Standardized tests simplified the process of admissions by developing cut-off scores before further interviews or testing would occur. However, standardized tests have also had negative effects. For example, there have been repeated concerns from educational and sociological experts that standardized tests are culturally biased, unintentionally force test-takers to reject the use of higher-order thinking skills, are used as gatekeepers in the ability tracking of students, and force teacher expectations to lessen toward low-performing students.

Yet standardized testing does have its own advantages. For one, the time required to complete a standardized test is much shorter than many other types of exams. Also, they can be very effective in determining the cognitive abilities of students prior to the instruction on some topic; that is, teachers can easily decide the level of instruction that their students would be able to process.


  1. Green, K. E. (Ed.). (1991). Educational testing: Issues and applications. New York: Garland.
  2. Phelps, R. P. (Ed.). (2005). Defending standardized testing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Wardrop, J. L. (1976). Standardized testing in the schools: Uses and roles. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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