Standardized tests take the form of a series of questions with multiple choice answers which can be filled out by thousands of test takers at once and quickly graded using scanning machines. The test is designed to measure test takers against each other and a standard, and standardized tests are used to assess progress in schools, ability to attend institutions of higher education, and to place students in programs suited to their abilities. Many parents and educators have criticized standardized testing, arguing that it is not a fair measure of the abilities of the test taker, and that standardized testing, especially high-stakes testing, should be minimized or abolished altogether.
Standardized tests can either be on paper or on a computer. The test taker is provided with a question, statement, or problem, and expected to select one of the choices below it as an answer. Sometimes the answer is straightforward; when asked what two plus two is, a student would select “four” from the list of available answers. The answer is not always so clear, as many tests include more theoretical questions, like those involving a short passage that the test taker is asked to read. The student is instructed to pick the best available answer, and at the end of a set time period, answer sheets are collected and scored.
There are some advantages to standardized tests. They are cheap, very quick to grade, and they allow analysts to look at a wide sample of individuals. For this reason, they are often used to measure the progress of a school, by comparing standardized test results with students from other schools. However, standardized tests are ultimately not a very good measure of individual student performance and intelligence, because the system is extremely simplistic. A standardized test can measure whether or not a student knows when the Magna Carta was written, for example, but it cannot determine whether or not the student has absorbed and thought about the larger issues surrounding the historical document.
Studies on the format of standardized tests have suggested that many of them contain embedded cultural biases which make them inherently more difficult for children outside the culture of the test writers. Although most tests are analyzed for obvious bias and offensive terms, subconscious bias can never be fully eliminated. Furthermore, critics have argued that standardized tests do not allow a student to demonstrate his or her skills of reasoning, deductive logic, critical thinking, and creativity. For this reason, some tests integrate short essays. These essays are often given only short attention by graders, who frequently vary widely in opinion on how they think the essay should be scored.
Finally, many concerned parents and educators disapprove of the practice of high-stakes testing. When a standardized test is used alone to determine whether or not a student should advance a grade, graduate, or be admitted to school, this is known as high-stakes testing. Often, school accreditation or teacher promotion rests on the outcome of standardized tests alone, an issue of serious concern to many people. Critics of high-stakes testing believe that other factors should be accounted for when considering big issues including classroom performance, interviews, classwork, and observations.