The Problem with Standardized Testing

How does one measure the success of a school?

The most common answer is student achievement scores on standardized tests.

Many school districts have a laser-like focus on state assessments. School improvement teams focus their work on improving scores. Teachers are reminded of the importance of posting high marks. Students are drilled with questions covered on the tests.

The week (or month) of the assessments, schools cease normal operations. Schedules are adjusted. Lunches are altered. Visitors are limited. Field trips are cancelled. Activities are postponed.

When word leaks that test scores will soon be released, anxiety rises. How will the scores look? Did our students do well? Is our school successful?

When a school earns high scores, euphoria rings throughout the building. Pep assemblies are planned and pizza parties are scheduled. Kids earn extra recess, teachers receive gifts, and the principal receives public recognition. All staff are rockstars. Life could not be any better.

When a school earns low scores, misery afflicts those within the building. Focus groups are planned and intensive training is scheduled. Kids get extra homework, teachers get reprimanded, and the principal is on the hot-seat. All staff are failures. Life could not be any worse.

Sound like your district?

I’m not saying student achievement scores aren’t important. We take great enjoyment in celebrating outstanding test scores. Our students deserve to be awarded for high levels of proficiency and our staff deserve to be commended for their hard work. Alternately, we take poor test scores seriously. We explore root causes for underperformance and develop plans for corrective action.

However, to suggest the success of a school, administrator, or teacher hinges on a single student achievement test is unfair and unreasonable.


In our district, every administrator is given an Expectations and Responsibilities sheet to start each year. Within this document the connection between building data and job performance is discussed:

“Utilizing data to measure the progress of a school administrator is a significant part of the evaluative process. While there is no perfect formula for measuring administrative success, a comprehensive analysis of several data points should be utilized to help inform the evaluation of the school administrator. When analyzing data, it is important to focus on trends, patterns, and comparisons as opposed to isolated data points. Given that different building levels utilize different measures, the administrator and superintendent should work together to determine what metrics will be used to measure the success for each individual building. Examples of sample data measures that could be included in the evaluative process are as follows:

  • State Assessment (Proficiency Levels & Growth)

  • Universal Screening Assessments (e.g., MAP, FAST, ACT etc.); (Proficiency Levels & Growth)

  • Student Course Performances and Student Course Failures

  • Behavior Referrals and other Behavior Data

  • Average Daily Attendance/Chronic Absenteeism

  • Culture & Climate Data (Parents, Staff, Students), Parent Engagement and Staff Retention

  • Graduation Rates, Dropout Rates and Student Participation Rates

  • College and Career Readiness, Post-secondary Enrollment, Degree/Certification Attainment

It is the responsibility of the school administrator to ensure key building data is tracked and updated throughout the year. Administrators must be knowledgeable of their data and be consistent in sharing building data with staff. It is the expectation that administrators share key building metrics with staff at least three times a year. By updating data and sharing this information with their staff members, administrators keep their building focused on key priorities and provide their staff with an opportunity to see how their work is impacting the entire building. Finally, the administrator will be responsible for sharing this information annually with the School Board."

Our administrators appreciate this approach. While they are still held accountable to data, they realize their job is not in jeopardy after one year of poor test scores. This eliminates unnecessary anxiety and gives administrators the confidence to do their jobs at a high level.

Schools would be wise to judge schools and employees based on multiple data points over a period of time as opposed to a single assessment given one time a year.

Looking for a great book discussing the importance of using multiple data points to measure employee performance? Consider reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr.

Copyright © 2019 by Dr. Jared Smith LLC.  Specializing in Leadership, Education, and Personal Growth.