clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 surprising things everyone should know about standardized tests

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Standardized tests have become a lot more common — and a lot more controversial — in the past 15 years. This year, the Common Core will change the state assessments that most students take at the end of the year. But there is still plenty people don't know about standardized testing, including these five facts, which might surprise you:

1. Standardized tests are more common in urban school districts than suburban ones.

There hasn't been a large-scale national study of standardized testing. But studies of testing policies in different school districts have found that students in urban districts are tested more often than students in suburban districts — almost twice as much at some grade levels, according to the Center for American Progress. Urban high school students take three times as many standardized tests as suburban high school students. That means they're probably also spending more time on test preparation. And studies have found that the more time teachers spend preparing students for standardized tests, the less time they spend on subjects that aren't tested, such as science, art, and civics.

2. Most standardized tests are self-imposed by school districts, not the federal government.

Packets are prepared for California STAR standardized tests

Staff prepare the California Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) packets for the student tests at a California high school. (Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Standardized testing became far more common after No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. For the first time, the law required schools to test students in reading and math in third through eighth grades and once in high school. The new Common Core tests that will make their debut in most states next spring will replace those federally required state tests.

But studies from the Center for American Progress and the American Federation of Teachers have found many of the tests students take aren't required by federal law. Instead, they're assigned by school districts, either to help prepare students for federally mandated tests or for other purposes.

Some common district tests, the ACT PLAN and ACT EXPLORE, help prepare students for the ACT. Other district tests are meant to measure whether students are progressing enough to pass state assessments at the end of the year. This means that even without a change to federal law, school districts have some control over how much time students are spending taking tests.

3. Parents don't hate standardized testing as much as you think.

Only 26 percent of parents said in a 2013 Associated Press poll that their children are taking "too many" standardized tests.

Still, as the number of standardized tests grows, so does the number of parents who pull their children out of standardized tests. In New York public schools, an epicenter of the opt-out movement, the number of students whose parents pulled them out of standardized tests increased fourfold from 2012 to 2013. But students who were opted out made up less than 0.5 percent of all students in the district.

The idea of standardized testing is still more popular than not: 59 percent of parents in a Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa poll said "using standardized computer-based tests to measure all students' progress and performance" is a good idea.

4. It's easier to improve standardized test scores in math than in reading.

Math is a skill that students mostly learn in school. Reading skills, on the other hand, are more intertwined with students' backgrounds — everything from their family income to how many words they heard early in life. That's why even students enrolled at high-achieving schools typically make bigger gains in their reading skills than their math skills. And it could explain why math scores have grown more quickly than reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds since 1971.

5. Schools feed students all kinds of things in hopes of improving their test results.

Mountain Dew


A Florida elementary school gave students three tablespoons of Mountain Dew and some trail mix before state standardized tests for years until a student's grandmother complained, and the principal said research found those particular foods helped lift students' scores. Other classrooms hand out peppermints, citing a study at the University of Cincinnati that found the smell of peppermint makes students more alert and focused.

In Virginia, schools at risk for penalties due to low standardized test scores served students more calories at lunch on test days than at other times, according to a 2002 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The calories were more likely to be "empty calories" — sugary treats without nutritional value. And the manipulation might have worked: test scores went up at schools that fed students more calories, and the increase was statistically significant in math. "The recent trend toward increased testing may, in its own small way, further exacerbate America’s recent epidemic of childhood obesity," the researchers wrote.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.