The Trouble with Standardized Testing

“One of the problems with nations that become obsessed with standardized testing is that eventually test scores do rise, but at a very great cost. Over time, the psychological stress and self-doubt John Oliver described intensifies and becomes part of what a nation considers to be normal..”


Comedian John Oliver did an excellent job this week, highlighting some of the many problems with Standardized Testing (see full video). At one point he focused on the international testing and publishing giant Pearson, describing the monopoly they have over tests, texts, teacher training and student assessment.

At the end of the segment he asked why, if standardized testing is so important, has it not led to a corresponding rise in America’s international test scores? One of the problems with nations that become obsessed with standardized testing is that eventually test scores do rise, but at a very great cost. Over time, the psychological stress and self-doubt Oliver described intensifies and becomes part of what a nation considers to be “normal.”

I’m a University teacher in Japan, where standardized tests have dominated education since the end of World War Two. As I described in another essay, this has led to extreme conformity, high levels of stress, lack of independent thought, rising suicide rates, decreased creativity and obsessive teaching to the test. Unfortunately, one cannot know these things just by comparing test scores, because the scores in Japan and other Asian countries are very high.

In the recent International PISA tests, test takers in Shanghai scored higher than all other students in the world. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called this a “wake up call” and President Obama compared it to Russia’s launch of the Sputnik. But Chinese educator Yong Zhao took a different view. Keeping an eye on news reports in his native country he found that many parents had great concerns about China’s obsession with test scores. As one parent wrote:

“Since my daughter began 7th grade (first year of middle school), she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 6:50 pm and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 8:40 pm. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 am to 8:00pm on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don’t have any self-study time, or physical education classes… This kind of practice has seriously damaged students’ health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child’s health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit… “

Here in Japan, we have a similar situation. The pressure is also very intense in Korea. Students in these nations are forced to compete for limited slots in the highest ranking Universities and high schools. For many Asian teachers, parents and students high test scores are all that matter, because education determines your future social rank, financial success and status in society.

As Yong Zhao described and John Oliver talked about on his program, this kind of pressure has a serious effect on young students. It’s also created a huge market for publishing, testing and test-preparation companies. In Japan & Korea, independent cram schools exist in both small towns and big cities, charging anywhere from $200 to $500 a month, per pupil. International corporations like Pearson and ETS (Educational Testing Service) not only create and administer a number of tests here, they also sell text books and support materials to help students prepare for them.

This has led to something educational researchers call “washback,” meaning the powerful influence that tests have on both classroom teaching and student learning outcomes (individuals’ knowledge and skill development). Washback becomes negative when learners spend so much time preparing for exams that they do not develop the actual skills and abilities those tests are meant to measure, thereby calling into question the very validity (and wisdom) of the tests themselves.

As University of Hawaii researcher James Dean Brown describes here, since 1993, the goal of English education in Japan has been to help students develop real English communication skills. Unfortunately, the intense competition for high test scores has blocked that from happening. For most Japanese students studying English, little has changed over the last two decades. The emphasis is still on memorizing grammar and vocabulary, and practicing test-taking strategies in preparation for high-stakes exams.

Because of this, most Japanese lack practical English knowledge and skills. They have difficulty understanding English spoken in movies, dramas or the international media. They cannot communicate effectively when meeting native speakers face-to-face. This is because they have spent all their time studying for tests, instead of using English, in order to develop the essential skills that come from real communication practice.

Even when Japanese students receive high scores on international tests of English language proficiency (such as TOEFL & TOEIC), those scores are not necessarily “valid” or accurate measures of their English ability.

Unless one interviews a student face-to-face, there is no way to know if a standardized test score reflects real language competence, or just intensive test-taking practice with materials such as Pearson’s Academic Connections, a textbook “designed for students preparing for academic study as well as for standardized tests such as the TOEFL® test” where a “systematic, step-by-step approach helps students develop and sharpen their language, academic, and test-taking abilities.”

By creating both high-stakes exams and curricula materials that prepare students for taking those tests, companies like Pearson make billions of dollars in profits but also diminish the scientific validity of their own assessments. They also disrupt the natural way children learn and develop skills, which, as Ken Robinson has described, is a highly creative and individualized process.

In his recent keynote address to participants at the 2015 Network for Public Education conference, Yong Zhao went further, calling educational systems focused on high-stakes exams and standardized curricula a slow form of societal suicide, because of the way testing compares children to one another, rigidly controls learning and crushes creative innovation.

The skewing of data and disturbance of essential skill-building through intensive test-preparation is one of the biggest dangers when education systems embrace high-stakes standardized testing marketed by publishers of teaching materials. Corporate giants such as Pearson don’t want people to be aware of these criticisms, as they make a lot of money by marketing test-driven instruction as the solution to a nation’s education problems and the key to future success.

It’s an extremely profitable business strategy, which― if more people were aware of it’s questionable claims and destructive effects― could put testing and publishing giants like Pearson out of business.

So…thanks again, to John Oliver, for highlighting some of these problems with standardized testing. Unfortunately (the deeper one digs), the more hypocrisy, deception and potential harm one finds…

~Christopher Chase~

“The assessment… is completely artificial… And the very ranking itself is harmful. It’s turning us into individuals who devote our lives to achieving a rank. Not into doing things that are valuable and important.” ~Noam Chomsky

“I never blame teachers or schools… But there is this deadly culture of standardizing, that’s being pushed on them, politically. My core message here is that we have to personalize education, not standardize it. That all children are different, and we have to find their talents and cultivate them.” ~Ken Robinson


Flaws at the Heart of Current Education Reforms * Ken Robinson- How Government Standardization Blocks Innovative Education Reform * Washback & Impact (pdf) – Lynda Taylor * Washback in Language Testing *  Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: How Schools Kill Creativity * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education *  Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing *  Children Need to Be Free to Learn * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Standardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda  *

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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7 Responses to The Trouble with Standardized Testing

  1. Reblogged this on Lorie Schaefer and commented:
    I wish I could make the argument as well as it is presented here. A link to Oliver’s 18 minute segment is included. Worth your time if you want some background or validation on why so many people are worried about the increase in standardized testing.

  2. I appreciated your international perspective. I’m frustrated and angry and so VERY happy I’m no longer teaching. My granddaughter starts school this year, however, and I am concerned for her sake. She’s bright (of course!) and kind and funny and eager to learn. I don’t want that precious spirit crushed out of her.

  3. Beth says:

    John Oliver is brilliant and always hysterically funny when he imitates the French. It seems as though much of life has become similarly rigid and pressured and overcomplicated (and corporation-dictated) in the last 20 years, and I question the value of so much of it. Thanks for another very coherent essay on the subject.

    • Most welcome Beth, and thank you! I also love his wit and intelligence. Did you see his segment on drug company marketing strategies to doctors? Also quite brilliant.

      • Beth says:

        Oh yes. I worked in medicine and it’s all absolutely true. Thanks for the link – I’m delighted to have the occasion to watch it again.

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