Standardized Testing On the Way Out!

By: Sydney Schneider, Sydney Haynes, Jake Nelsen, Christopher Rohde

     Standardized testing has become the main component of what colleges and universities look at to determine if a student is fit for their school. However, standardized testing isn’t a completely accurate way to represent a student’s intelligence because of many factors that could limit specific groups of students. Race and ethnicity, income status, and individual health, are just some of the potential limiting factors that standardized testing introduces into the scores of students. Standardized testing has a long history of controversy in the United States. In well known court cases during the 1970s, people argued that cultural bias in intelligence (IQ) testing had resulted in discriminatory placement of students in special classes. Surveys in this country show that more than forty million school children in the United States takes, on average, three standardized ability tests each year in school, according to the American Sociology Association. With standardized testing so prominent today and inhibiting minority groups ability to continue their education, Omaha’s very own Creighton University has adopted a test optional policy. The move explains the commitment the University has made to remove any test bias or other barriers to make a Creighton education a reality for students who will thrive at the University of all backgrounds and cultures. This study is going to examine school policies, Omaha World Herald archives, and various articles that highlight the issues with placing so much focus on standardized testing, why more colleges should consider the test optional approach, and how standardized testing plays a part in Omaha schools.


    A main point that came across was Creighton University’s headline of becoming the first Midwest Jesuit University to adopt test-optional admission for freshman applicants, beginning in 2020. While searching for data on standardized testing, the focus was to collect data that supported how this movement away from standardized testing could benefit all education level students. Utilizing the online Omaha World Herald archives served as the major contribution of how Omaha’s schools view and utilize standardized testing. Searching for articles that contained key words like how standardized testing affects, shapes, or limits a student’s academic career was the manner in how data was gathered. Also, narrowing down the time frame of our data to mainly be within the 2000s- 2010s helped collect more reliable and relevant data. Once the data was gathered, categories were constructed to best fit all of the data found into similar groups. These groups were, unequal representation, cost, diversity, and types of tests. The unequal representation and diversity categories focus on how standardized testing is limiting to minority groups of students because the different cultural backgrounds or situation aren’t taken into account when writing standardized exams. The cost and types of tests categories help show how prevalent standardized testing has become, which helps to marginalize the vast amount of students every year from elementary age to highschool age being put at an unfair advantage due to performing lower than the majority of students. When looking at the categories collectively, they all highlight why and how moving away from using standardized test scores as the primary indicator of readiness or intelligence is beneficial.


Unequal Representation

Unequal representation plays a major role in standardized testing and is one of the biggest reasons that specific groups of people are put at a disadvantage when it comes to scores on these exams. Evidence of the disadvantages posed on certain individuals is explained in the Nebraskan high school study that confirms the correlation between a school’s poverty rate and test scores. In this study, it showed how high schools in Omaha public school system with high poverty scored much lower than suburban schools with low poverty. Specifically, Elkhorn South High School scored highest with a 24.6, while Benson scored lowest with a 14.9. Elkhorn South’s poverty rate is 3.6 percent, compared to the staggering 86.5 percent at Benson. The lesser the poverty rate of a school, the higher the test scores of students at that school because of more opportunities readily available for students to improve test scores via a more reliable source of income from the school and families of the students. Varying income statuses of the families of students are not taken into account in standardized test scores, which creates a very apparent difference in scores among students unfairly. This is one of the main contributors to the achievement gap that exists in standardized testing from elementary to college level students. The achievement gap is directly seen at Millard South High School in Omaha, where high scorer’s on the ACT get several different rewards and recognition. On the other hand, struggling students and those who want to get their scores higher, don’t receive the attention they desire. Those who are at a disadvantage,whether it’s income, health, or being a part of a different ethnic or cultural group are set up from the start to score lower, giving them less of a chance to get into colleges who require a certain ACT/SAT score, and there is little being done to help minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged people obtain equal opportunities as other students. As seen by the table below, there is a correlation between diversity, income status, college prep focus, and ACT scores. A school that has a more diverse environment, tends to have more students on free/reduced lunch because of the lower income status. College preparations aren’t as readily available or heavily focused on for students at low income schools resulting in lower ACT scores.


Omaha High School (Public) Average ACT Percent of Students on Free/Reduced Lunch College Prep Rating Diversity Rating
Millard North 28 17% A B+
Elkhorn South 28 3% A C
Papillion la Vista  26 17% B+ B-
Ralston 24 50% B A
Bryan 19 74% C A
Benson 19 79% C+ A+

Cost of Standardized Testing

Cost is an important theme. A major and important point is that Nebraska school kids will cost state $8.8 million next year. That is for testing alone. That is insanely expensive for just standardized testing. As well as Nebraska will pay $8.8 million to contractors next year for statewide standardized testing of public students. An $8.8 million to the contractors in addition for statewide standardized testing. On a 6-0 vote, the board also authorized $6.1 million to contract with NWEA for testing in grades three through eight for the 2018-19 school year. The state will contract with Data Recognition Corporation for $1.2 million to provide alternate assessments in grades three through eight and 11. Federal and Nebraska law require testing for accountability purposes. Tests gauge a student’s proficiency on state academic standards. Each year, more colleges announce that they are ending requirements that applicants submit SAT and ACT scores — joining hundreds of others in the “test-optional” camp. Just this week, Augsburg University in Minnesota made such a shift, as well as Creighton University here in Omaha. The university’s announcement said that the policy had strong faculty support and was seen as likely to boost the diversity of the student body. High school grades in college preparatory courses are the key to good admissions decisions, said officials there, just as their peers have said at many other institutions. “When a college announces a test-optional policy, it also conveys to students that the college is aware of and sensitive to issues that impact low-income and underrepresented students and this awareness can signal to applicants an aware and inviting institutional culture,” Bello said.



Types of Tests

The State of Nebraska has recently implemented the NSCAS which is a statewide assessment system. This affects all of Nebraska, including Omaha. The NSCAS is an adaptive test that increases or decreases in difficulty depending on how students answer. The test does a great job by being a challenge for some students and keeping others less frustrated. The NSCAS was created for students to be prepared for their future in college and other careers. The NSCAS should have better performance from students over the predecessor NeSA. The type of standardized testing given out in Nebraska has continued to change over the years in search for the perfect standardized test that is beneficial to the assessment of all students. In 1999, Nebraska implemented STARS testing which was district based. Performance could not be compared with other schools and some schools tampered with their scores. The NSCAS includes the ACT which students take in their junior year of high school. NeSA was introduced in 2010, and after that the ACT was implemented as Nebraska’s test for accountability. The NSCAS test is also used for accountability purposes. It can be used to benefit schools that do not perform well by identifying them so they get assistance.

Diversity is one of the more controversial issues in standardized testing, though statistics show evidence of cultural differences impacting how students score on standardized tests. In schools with higher diversity, scores tend to be below those with less diversity in the student population. In the Omaha area, schools that are given the highest ratings in their student body’s diversity also tend to be in the low to mediocre range in test scores and academics, with the best school with high diversity only getting an “average” in terms of their academic prestige. One reason that is said to be a part of this is a language barrier. For students who are non-English speakers or who learned English as a second language and are not as proficient in it, the may not fully understand questions on standardized tests due to not knowing what the words mean and are at a disadvantage compared to the majority of students who have known English since they were very young and never had to adjust to a new language later. 



Unequal Representation

The reason standardized testing has become so prevalent is because there is a need to assess a student’s academic capabilities. The achievement gap that exists in Omaha’s public schools due to different racial groups and socioeconomic statuses is supported by the fact that students across the nation from lower socioeconomic classes have typically performed worse on standardized tests due to being in poor school districts with less resources. To be specific the National Center for Education Statistics found, 39% of african american and 30% of hispanic students are living below the income poverty line in the United States. Because of this large percent of minority students that are in low income situations, most of the schools they go to don’t receive the same education as students from a higher income area. When looking at low income white students to higher income african american students, african american still scored lower than white students 75% of the time according to The Brookings Institution’s findings. This demonstrates that not only income, but race and cultural background are the biggest determinants of how a student scores on these exams. Removal of standardized testing gives these students a better chance to attend college and continue their academic aspirations. The disadvantages minority students have to face can also be seen between the discrepancy of average ACT scores between suburban and city high schools in Omaha. Suburban schools have a higher median income and less diversity than city schools, therefore suburban schools tend to score higher than urban schools. There have been several articles highlighting how disadvantaged and underrepresented groups (URM), which includes African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos, are at a deficit when it comes to standardized test scores as seen in these schools in Omaha. They have different backgrounds that limit their capabilities on these tests, which impact their score negatively and limit the opportunities for them to succeed in college. Sociologists would confirm the relationship between a schools setting and standardized test scores because minority groups have different backgrounds that limit their capabilities on these tests, which impact their score negatively and limit the opportunities for them to succeed in college Minority groups struggle to compete with the scores of other students and as a result have trouble getting admitted into colleges.


Cost of Standardized Testing

Do standardized tests really capture what we’ve learned, and do they accurately measure intelligence? Sociological research suggests that relying “solely on quantitative measures such as these tests is problematic,” according to scholarly article, “The Effects of Standardized Testing” by the American Sociology Association. Looking at research methods helps us understand why. If we were to rely solely on surveys, let’s say online surveys to understand everything, would this be sufficient to fully understand human lives and society? No one research method is adequate to fully understand social realities in the same way that no one type of test can really capture what we know. standtest2

In the same way, testing a child and relying on that test from one time period to document their learning may not be adequate. What if on they day they took the test they had a headache, a family member had just died, or were just having a bad day? Would their performance on that one type of test be truly reflective of their knowledge and abilities? These thoughts led me to ponder Max Weber and his approach to research methods. He wrote about the importance of verstehen , how we must take into account the perspective and experience of those who live the lives we are studying. We must use all data we can possibly gather, from those who can be interviewed about their experiences to the documents and statistical output created by institutions. In order to assess learning, we need to understand and address the need for diverse testing strategies so as to capture a holistic sense of what is learned.



With standardized tests, the goal is to use a one-size-fits-all approach to test the abilities of all students. While a good, and relatively fair, idea in theory, when used in reality, it isn’t quite as fair as it may seem. As seen in the Omaha area, schools with higher poverty ratings, which are by far the most diverse schools in the area, tend to score lower on standardized tests. But this problem is not limited to the Omaha area, it is nation-wide. All across the country, schools with low funding and high diversity rates tend to score below those in better financial situations because the tests don’t acknowledge that students can only learn what they are taught and an underfunded school may not be able to teach everything as well. Or that maybe a student doesn’t have as much time for schoolwork because they need a job to keep their family from losing their home due to poverty. Or simply that different races, ethnicities, and classes may have different strengths, interests, or aspirations. The tests assume that everyone receives an equal education and have no issues outside of classes when in reality not everyone has the same education and problems come up in everyone’s life. The tests focus on what a student already knows when the better method is to compare them to others in their environment and the potential they have to succeed in a better opportunity.  

Types of Tests

The main concern for the usage of the adaptive testing style for standardized test is the validity of of adaptive testing. The question is how accurate the test is when it collects data throughout the assessment and how effective it is towards the student. The point of the adaptive test is to show improvement in the students achievement and academic growth better than the predecessors of this specific standardized test. Not only does the adaptive test work, but the adaptive test does much more than benefit the student in their achievement and growth. The adaptive test system collects a large amount of data throughout the test by analyzing the student taking the test frequently. This makes the test credible and do what people assumed it was created to do. The test goes much further than the student by how it assesses the teachers accountability. It benefits the school as a whole by giving them better benefits based on if students perform badly on their tests. The information that the system collects throughout the test only shows greater effects on the students, which is the goal of standardized testing. The adaptive test helps the individual student by focusing on the success on the student better than the tests before it did.


With standardized testing playing such a major role in elementary schools all the way up to graduate and postgraduate levels, it is obvious that these exams serve as a main model for success and promotion. There are many outside factors that students can’t control that can affect test scores negatively for minority students and leave them at an unfair disadvantage. In Figure 2, one can see clearly that the percentage of schools in Omaha, both public and private, are mostly located in the city compared to rural and suburban. Schools that have the highest average ACT scores in Omaha tend to be schools located in suburban or rural areas, which tend to be more wealthier and as a result have more resources for students to improve their likelihood to get into college compared to urban schools with higher poverty rates and less resources to focus on college admission. In Figure 3, the proportions of different racial groups are laid out for those enrolled in Omaha public and private schools. The majority of students in Omaha’s public and private schools are white, which leaves hispanic and African American students severely in the minority. This figure demonstrates the lack of diversity in Omaha’s schools, which makes it easier to see how minority groups can get so easily overlooked when it comes to standardized testing since there is such a low percentage enrolled in Omaha’s schools compared to white students. With this being said, some universities and institutions are now making it optional for students to submit standardized test scores to give all students the opportunity for a quality education. The colleges and universities adopting this test optional policy should be observed and data should be collected on the success of these students who didn’t submit test scores. By following the academic status of students who didn’t send in test scores to colleges, it is hopeful to disprove the belief that a student is more likely to be successful in college if they have higher exam scores. 

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