Racing against the clock to darken circles with No. 2 pencils has become nearly synonymous with American public schooling, but not everyone supports the emphasis placed on standardized tests. Increasingly, child psychologists and educational experts have begun to rebel against the testing movement, particularly for elementary school children. These opponents believe the educational system burdens students with the pressure to perform well on assessments that may not be as valuable as testing advocates claim.
Standardized Testing Movement
Some of the arguments against standardized testing in elementary schools are as old as the tests themselves. The assessment movement swept across all grade levels in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to hold schools accountable for student progress after the America fell behind the Soviet Union in the early days of space race. As yearly norm referenced tests became fashionable in elementary schools, critics questioned the value of tests that relied a small sample of questions to measure learning. They also argued the way to improve elementary education was to reduce class size and improve teacher training rather than testing students.
No Child Left Behind
The No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 ignited a wave controversy over its testing requirements, which included yearly testing in literacy and math in grades three through eight and a mandate that all public school children read on grade level by a set date. Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University who helped craft the NCLB law, became a vocal opponent of testing after seeing scores used as a tool to shut down schools in the poorest neighborhoods with the highest population of disadvantaged children. Ravitch warns against standardized tests being used as a means to replace public schools that serve the country’s neediest children with for-profit charter schools that often operate with less accountability for the quality of education they provide.
Effects on Curriculum
James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Education and Information Studies, points out several ways standardized testing leads to less actual learning for elementary children. Popham notes that teachers are often forced to abandon areas of the curriculum that are not covered by tests. In some cases, schools have dropped traditional subjects like cursive writing and penmanship, but in other cases schools are reducing art, music and even social studies to provide more time for test practice. This constant drilling, Popham argues, can rob students of their love for genuine learning.
Effects on Children
High-stakes standardized tests can have a number of negative consequences for children, according to a report in the Congressional Quarterly Researcher. Students who feel they can’t pass the tests lose interest in school and the same is true for students who find the tests too easy and too much the focus of their schooling. In an article for Education Week, Alfie Kohn, an independent lecturer and author of "The Case Against Standardized Testing," called children the victims of standardized testing and asserts that virtually no experts in early childhood education believe tests should be administered to children younger than 8 or 9 years old. Kohn also argues that standardized tests promote teaching children superficial thinking, rather than pursuing deeper learning.