Students Are Falling Behind

Standardized tests lead to test skills being taught ahead of the 21st century skills our students really need

by: Mike Wade

Problems with standardized tests

Whether it’s EQOA in Ontario or the SAT’s in the USA, almost all education systems have some sort of standardized tests. These tests can be the basis for school funding and are used as the measuring stick upon which schools and teachers are evaluated and ranked. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the school and the teachers to score high on these standardized tests. Teachers will invariably teach to the test. There are reasons school boards have gravitated toward standardized tests. They’re (relatively) cheap, easily administered, and they carry the promise of some kind of “objective” measure.

21st Century skills

As there are only so many hours in a teaching day other areas like 21st-century skills get less attention especially when a school is in test mode. Since 21st-century skills can be difficult to measure and may not be included on standardized tests, they are not emphasized in schools.  This creates a conflict for students’ futures, especially in regards to their capacity as workers in a rapidly changing economy (Cowan, 2008). Skills that students will need to succeed in 2016 and beyond include problem-solving, creativity, analytic thinking and communication skills.  These types of skills have a long history of being ignored in schools because they are not measurable or are difficult to measure and are then marginalized or discarded from the curriculum (Eisner, 1994).

Possible Solutions

To be successful on a standardized test teachers need to cover a vast scope of material within a limited amount of time.  As a result, many teachers feel they can cover more material when they are in front of the class lecturing to every student, rather than using technology (Butzin, 2004). One possible technological solution is an adaptive learning program that would adjust to each child taking a test, selecting easier or more difficult items for the child based on the responses given. Such a system would capture data to demonstrate how schools are delivering core functional skills including reading comprehension, writing and numeracy, while also producing individual data about how students are learning.

Another possible solution is performance assessments which can include project-based learning and portfolios. These approaches allow students to follow their own interests and cater into their strengths. Performance assessment focuses on demonstrations of learning, they are usually graded with a rubric, not a percentile. They address skills like presentation, communication, and teamwork that are common in the workplace but not part of most traditional schooling—or state-mandated testing.

Other resources

The myths of standardized testing

What schools could use instead of standardized testing

Alternatives to standardized tests


Butzin, S. (2002). Project CHILD (Changing How Instruction for Learning is Delivered): The perfect fit for multimedia elementary schools. Multimedia Schools, 9(6), 14.

Cowan, J. (2008). Strategies for planning technology-enhanced learning experiences. Clearing House, 82(2), 55-59.

Eisner, E. 1994. Cognition and curriculum reconsidered. New York: Teachers College Press.

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