What are Standardized Tests?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

A typical answer sheet for a multiple choice standardized test. Each bubble represents a possible answer.
A typical answer sheet for a multiple choice standardized test. Each bubble represents a possible answer.

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.

Standardized tests measure a child's academic performance.
Standardized tests measure a child's academic performance.

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but it cannot determine whether or not the student has absorbed and thought about the larger issues surrounding the historical document.

Standardized tests are used to assess a person's ability to attend college or university.
Standardized tests are used to assess a person's ability to attend college or university.

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.

Standardized tests are meant to measure test takers against one another.
Standardized tests are meant to measure test takers against one another.

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.

Online standardized assessments help gauge education programs.
Online standardized assessments help gauge education programs.
Teachers are regularly evaluated based on how their students perform on standardized tests.
Teachers are regularly evaluated based on how their students perform on standardized tests.
Standardized testing is often used in primary and secondary schools to ensure students have met expected learning goals.
Standardized testing is often used in primary and secondary schools to ensure students have met expected learning goals.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I looked this up because I was arguing with a friend who felt that standardized test are a measure of how "smart" someone is. My argument is that they are not, but rather a test of how well prepared someone is for the particular test or otherwise how good a test taker they are. Standardized tests are unfair and in some cases just humiliating.

Why is it that special education kids have to take the same tests as all the other students (in New York a special education child must score at least a 55 on the English regents) when it is already known that they lack the ability and why keep making them take it until they can achieve the required score? Yes, in some cases, the student may feel a sense of accomplishment for reaching their mark, but it would have to be discouraging.


The quality of education in this country has to do with the fact that we are attempting to educate the entire population. Very few countries in the world attempt to educate everyone.

If you want education to improve, then pay professionals to teach. As it is, teachers last about five years before the majority of them switch to other professions that are less stressful and/or higher paying.

You cannot educate a child unless their basic needs are met. In many school districts, children show up with smelly clothes, no supplies and no food. If you want to educate that child, you have to first feed them, then help them clean up, then get them the supplies they need. After that, you have to deal with their emotional state, then find a way to make them learn something that day. Now that is just one child. Imagine 20 of them in a classroom, possibly more, and consider the real state of our education system. There aren't enough people, and there isn't enough money to get more people or better people.

Beyond that teachers are now accountable for their students' learning. So if a child's parents are going through a traumatic divorce, the teacher is responsible for the child not learning well during that time. Do you hold your dentist responsible for your cavities when you don't brush your teeth? Teachers can only teach; they can't do for the students. Standardized tests are find if they are used as information. They should not be high stakes. They should not be the be all, end all of students or teachers.


@RandomThinker: Yeah, you've got the right idea. A standardized test measures precisely one thing: how good a test-taker the student is. There's no way I should have made even a 16 on the math portion of my ACT (took it over 20 years ago), but I did. Why? Left no answers blank and "when in doubt, charlied out."

English, science, social sciences? Sure, I knew what I was doing. I did very well in those categories. On the math portion, I was looking at stuff I had never seen in my life. But I still pulled a 16. That's because I'm a great test-taker. I knew if I just put anything down, I had at least a 25 percent chance of getting it right. It was worth the risk. So I did better than I deserved. Then again, I'm a smart cookie. A less capable student will not do as well on questions he or she knows, simply because the test-taking skills aren't there.


Let's not get standardized tests performance confused with actual learning and ability. Studies (such as ones done by James Popham) have shown that standardized test performance has more to do with aptitude and socioeconomic status than actual learning. Meaning that someone "smart" is likely to do well on tests without having learned anything.

Also, most educators problem with "accountability" is the measurement procedure. If a teacher gets a student to increase two grade levels of reading in one year that is an awesome feat. If the same teacher teachers ninth grade ELA and the student is still on a seventh grade reading level and does not do well on the ninth grade End of Course Test the teacher is not rewarded for her great efforts.

My solution: (1)Test students at the beginning of the year. (2)Evaluate their aptitude to learn and determine an individual percent of increase that is suitable for their abilities. (3) Test students at the end of the year and evaluate teachers and schools based on individual student gains. This way you evaluate teachers on what he or she actually did, not their job location or luck of having smart kids in their classes already. --RandomThinker


Standardized test should not be used to assess individual teachers. Other than unfair, from a statistical point of view it is just too small and biased a sampling. The purpose of standardised test should be to assess the teaching methodology and syllabus. A lowered standard is usually a sign of an educational system that does not work as a whole.


SauteePan-Hopefully these standardized tests will not allow students that are significantly deficient to be promoted to the following grade.

Our kids need a strong foundation in order to continue to make educational gains. For example, if a student fails a 4th grade standardized test in both math and reading then the student does not have the proper education to learn even more complex topics in the area of math in reading in 5th grade and should be retained in order to obtain mastery in the subject.


SurfNturf-I agree with you. I even think that the statistical data proves that some gains in education have been made since no child left behind.

I think that we have to stop accepting mediocrity in our education system. We have to use a tool like this to give us some indication on what the child has learned.

While no standardized test can measure everything and there are children that just don’t test well, I still feel that it gives us a concrete measure to determine if the school is actually teaching our kids.

We should not have high school graduates that are illiterate. This happens because of social promotion without regard to what the student has learned.


Sunny27-While I know that are some criticisms regarding elementary standardized tests, I feel that the no child left behind standard tests really hold the schools accountable for teaching our children.

We all know that the quality of education is not particular good in most public schools and the only way we can improve it is to use the standardized test data of the no child left behind standardized tests offer. Here we can make the appropriate changes in the school system.

Both the students and teachers should be held accountable for the results of the tests. I know that the critics say that teachers are now forced to teach to the test and do not have the time to teacher other critical subjects. However, there should be a happy medium. In my children's private school curriculum is very challenging and the children learn a lot they also are given standardized testing.

The teacher then spends a few days reviewing the material on how to take a test and tries to get them used to a test taking environment. It is more of an orientation than anything else so that the children know what to expect.

This takes very little time and the school continues its curriculum. I don't see how that argument holds water of not being able to teach anything else because test prep is so time consuming.


Cafe41-I have to say that there are Standardized tests pros and cons. These standardized tests pros allow parents to see how their children are learning.

Their scores are usually compared to a national average that provides a percentage and grade equivalent average.

For example, if a child taking 3rd grade standardized test, scores a 5.3 grade equivalent and is in the 93rd percentile means that the child scored as well as a fifth grader in his third month and is ahead of 93% of the national population in that particular subject.

Standardized test data is really a benchmark so that not only the school district can determine which schools are performing at or below grade level.

This allows a school district to take action on poor performing schools. Funding is also taken away from schools that perform poorly so there's usually a lot of pressure regarding these tests for the students and teachers.


Brooklyndave- I think that I know which tests you are referring to. They are usually called the Myers-Briggs Personality assessments.

These tests give employers insight to determine if the applicant is a good fit for a particular organization. This test offers a dominant characteristic that a person will often display that will let the employer know if the person, for example, has leadership potential or would rather follow a group and not lead.

These tests are usually a measure that a company uses to determine the likelihood that the applicant will be successful in the position that they applied for.

They are usually pretty effective and can give you a little insight as to what jobs are best for you. Outplacement agencies often use these types of tests to help displaced workers find new employment.

These tests often make recommendations as to which positions and careers would be best for the prospective applicant.


Speaking about the standardized tests I have a question for you. Several years ago the lie detector was no longer used in the hiring sector, instead a written test was introduced that asked questions several times but in different wordings and sequence. Do you know what those tests were called and are there any on the Internet. I believe these would also be considered some sort of standardized testing. I know this is some sort of psychological

test. Thanking you in advance, Brooklyndave

Post your comments
Forgot password?