NB. Some answers appear to be for a question I did not ask, namely, "Why is standardized testing bad?" Indeed, these answers tend to underscore the premise of my actual question, which can be found above.

As a foreigner who has spent some time in the US, it seems to me that in the US, there is this knee-jerk hostility against standardized testing.

(I don't have proper evidence for this assertion. And it is of course not true that everyone in the US absolutely abhors standardized testing. But nonetheless I think we can safely say that most Americans consider standardized testing a bad idea. I base my assertion only on anecdotal evidence. Take a look for example at the videos that show up in a search for 'standardized testing' on YouTube. Or some of the "answers" below.)

My question is: What are some historical reasons for this?

For example, in the Confucian countries in East Asia, it is possible to explain why standardized testing is widely accepted by appealing to the historical fact that there was the imperial examination system. (Now I don't know if this explanation is the best explanation or if it is even correct, but it is one I hear often.)

How might one explain, through history (and perhaps otherwise), why there is such immense hostility against standardized testing in the US?

Here is some more context. I was inspired to ask this question after coming across this passage in an interview with the economist Claudia Goldin:

The education system in the early 20th century was a decentralized system that was very open, albeit with some important exceptions, such as African Americans and certain immigrant groups. But by and large, relative to Europe, America was educating all its children. European visitors would come to the United States and be shocked by how America was wasting its resources. European countries were cherry picking which students would get a good education; they set very high standards and had national exams. We didn't. We had more of a free-for-all, grassroots, local system in which until recently there were few state exams for graduation. That served us very well by getting a large number of students to graduate from high school. By the 1950s, U.S. high school enrollment and graduation rates were relatively high, much higher than Europe.

But then various European countries started looking more like the United States; they began to pull more individuals into high schools, some via technical schools but also by expanding more general education. And many of them did so without abandoning the higher standards of the more elitist period. The United States, on the other hand, has had a very hard time adopting uniform standards. The idea has been that the different parts of the country have different demands, so we don't need to have national standards. And it's true that we do have a far more heterogeneous population. But the enormous virtue of decentralization has more recently caused some difficulty.

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ I don't live in the US, but here in Brazil we do have our 'versions' and I always remember this. $\endgroup$ – Lucas Virgili May 31 '15 at 23:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In short, America classically was founded on rugged individualism. Many of us still believe in this story. It's hard to fit an erudite centralized education into this view of what America "should be". That said, the local history probably has more to do with misgivings about how requirement to test has been met in school systems. I see in my state many schools spending a disproportionate amount of time merely "teaching to the test". For testing to work, there needs to be a lot more secrecy and creativity about how the tests are made and administered. Ideally, you want tests which can't be... $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jun 1 '15 at 13:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ prepared for specifically. You want to encourage content and concept, but, what seems to happen is we cater to SOLs (Standard of Learning) which focus on the bare-minimum. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jun 1 '15 at 13:10

Not an answer, but perhaps a clue.

Richard Feynman in one of his books (I think the title began "Surely You're Joking...", or it might have began "What Do You Care..."; hopefully someone else will recall the correct and full title) had a couple of stories regarding foreign high-level education (Brazil? physics undergraduate or graduate?)) as well as textbooks for primary science education in the U.S. As I best recall, he observed that the foreign students were able to recall large amounts of material, but were unable to apply them or explain possible relations that weren't covered in the material. I won't repeat what he said about the U.S. textbooks; you should find and read that rant for yourself.

I think the clue is that this country grew young and strong on innovation, inspiration, and independence, and in spite of the struggles it causes, is intending for education to be varied enough so that the skill sets produced are varied, and in particular encourage independence (and hopefully ability) of thought. Standardized testing, while good for some evaluations, is poor enough that (in the case of multiple choice examinations) it can't tell apart a poor student from a monkey, and also has trouble distinguishing between mastery of the knowledge and mastery of test-taking skills. This is not Feynman's opinion, but I believe the above anecdotes support such an opinion. I also believe that such opinions are and have been harbored by many in and near the U.S. education establishment for almost as long as standardized testing has been used in the U.S.

Gerhard "But I Could Be Wrong" Paseman, 2015.05.31

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Feynman's famous letter, "Judging Books by Their Covers", later included as a chapter in his book, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, can be found here: textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Oct 10 '16 at 1:10

One possible reference (mentioned here specifically for its introduction) is:

van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, M., & Becker, J. (2003). Towards a didactic model for assessment design in mathematics education. In Second international handbook of mathematics education (pp. 689-716). Springer Netherlands. Springer Link.

(Side-note: The second author, Jerry Becker, maintains a very informative mathematics education mailing list that I would highly suggest subscribing to!)

Here is a brief excerpt:

enter image description here

enter image description here

As for just one of their given references, see:

Kilpatrick, J. (1993). The chain and the arrow: From the history of mathematics assessment. In Investigations into assessment in mathematics education (pp. 31-46). Springer Netherlands. Springer Link.

This is already lengthy, but as a summary of some key reasons:

  1. teaching to the test and the resulting impact in a variety of contexts, e.g., topics included in the mathematics curriculum and approaches to classroom teaching;

  2. the questionable validity of standardized tests;

  3. the use of these test scores to assess, e.g., teachers and schools; and

  4. not mentioned above: the commercialization of the tests.

Lastly, an important concept that is brought up in some of the more recent arguments against standardized testing (though perhaps less relevant to the question of "historical reasons") can be found in Claude Steele's work on stereotype threat and subsequent studies that have confirmed its existence and articulated the implications.

  • $\begingroup$ (Please explain the down vote so that I can try to improve my answer!) $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Oct 13 '16 at 11:19

In many cases where people are distrustful about certain forms of testing, such distrust stems from a belief that the results of such testing will be put to uses that those harboring the distrust would oppose. In the case of standardized testing of educational performance, some people are worried that test results will be used to reward better-performing schools with increased resource allocation, thus removing resources from schools which are already performing badly, while other people are worried that test results will be used to direct resources toward schools which are performing poorly, a policy which may provide perverse incentives to those involved not to fix the problems.

It is reasonable to oppose testing which is genuinely useless; for any kind of testing to be worthy of support, there must be a reasonable expectation that the results will be usable for some positive purpose. If there is no agreement about how the results from academic performance testing should be used, opposition to the administration of such tests is entirely logical.

  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps missing from this answer is that the OP asks specifically about the United States. The content of this response could be seen to apply broadly; yet, as the OP remarks, standardized testing does not face the same hostility in e.g. East Asia as it does in the US. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Jun 3 '15 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman: I would suggest that's because people in other countries don't harbor the same distrust about how the results will be used. In the US, there are substantial disagreements about how disparities in test results should affect educational policies and resource allocation; I would suggest that such disagreements are behind the opposition to testing in general. $\endgroup$ – supercat Jun 3 '15 at 13:19

A video clip Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Standardized Testing offers an 18 minute discussion on the issues. Issues raised -

  • Too many standardized tests, an average of 113 over the course of one's education through high school.
  • Test anxiety - Test proctors are literally instructed on what to do when a child vomits on his test.
  • Too much time "teaching to the test," preparing for the test itself regardless of the course material.
  • Theory (of pay for performance for teachers) vs reality of not implementing a system that actually tracks their performance accurately.
  • The large market share of a single testing provider, along with citations of bad questions and outright errors. As well as the cited "The Hare and the Pineapple" story.

Yes, the HBO video was presented in comedic fashion, not a documentary. But the facts remain, the goal of assessing our students and their progress year to year is not currently achieved via the test process in place.

In response to OP's edited note - I don't think standardized tested is perceived as bad, in and of itself, just that so far, the implementation has been a failure. Which prompts the question - "how can one design set of standardized tests to track performance and deliver accurate results?"

Update - Education Week, a printed and online magazine for educators, is having a webinar titled Inside the Opt-Out Movement on June 17th 2PM EDT. Note, the webinar is recorded and available for 2 months after that date. I'll return to freshen this link after the recording is made available.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for any mention of The Hare and the Pineapple! $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Jun 2 '15 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ As a member of a young board, I'm curious about what prompts down votes. A link only answer, I understand. I offered 5 points that were raised on the video, so absent a link, it would stand on its own. (On a similar note - I DV'd an incorrect answer on Math.SE, and was taken to task by the OP, "wrong answers shouldn't be DV'd" Really? $\endgroup$ – JoeTaxpayer Jun 2 '15 at 15:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I was one who downvoted. Suppose I asked the question "What are the historical reasons for the hostility against religious group X in country Y?" And someone from country Y then offered, as an answer, a list of everything that was wrong with religious group X. That is pretty much what your answer did here. $\endgroup$ – Kenny LJ Jun 2 '15 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ @KennyLJ - fair enough. Much appreciated. $\endgroup$ – JoeTaxpayer Jun 2 '15 at 23:11

A late answer, because I think none of the existing responses have yet to address the theme of "why particularly in the U.S.?" (laying aside, momentarily, the other solid criticisms of standardized tests in general).

Recall that the U.S. has an almost unique federalist structure which traditionally reserves lots of power to the states, outside of the national government. In particular, the U.S. constitution does not give any explicit power to the federal government to form or guide any national educational policy or curriculum. This is why educational standards in the U.S. vary so widely between states (or even moreso: between localities, as schools are largely locally-funded through property taxes).

Partly because of this tradition, we have a culture where control over education is rather jealously guarded as a right of the state and local community. As an example, consider the recent Common Core movement: it was considered such a third-rail issue that federal education experts did not dare even express support for this multi-state compact; yet nevertheless a political battle emerged over whether the Obama administration supported it in secret or not.

So one part of the answer is that in the U.S., standardized testing (on top of other limitations) smacks of outside influence, control, and surveillance (such as by the U.S. federal government) over what is considered to be a local-control right, and the right of parents to determine what their children learn. That may be unusual among other countries, but part of the culture here (and one might say that this also feeds into the general acceptance of lower-quality schools for minorities who live in poor areas and are limited in ability to fund schools, which normalizes ongoing inequality in the U.S.).

Richard Hofstadter wrote a book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964, on some of these issues, that you might want to consider as a starting point for the unique U.S. perspective on educational issues.


In addition to the other great answers already posted, here's another thing that should be mention: Americans strongly buy into the rags-to-riches story; the idea that anyone can become successful. There are numerous examples of individuals in U.S. history that come from background with little formal education, but nonetheless ended up as successful scientists, inventors, business men, etc. So there's an inherent distaste for a standardized test that measures success in a uniform manner.

Let me say it another way. If there is a standardized test, what do the results mean? In some countries these exams are of utmost importance for getting into higher education. But in the "land of opportunity" the sentiment is that no one should be denied the chance of a successful career just because of the results of a contrived, academic exercise. Americans value the ability to do as much as (possibly more than) the ability to know. So many have an attitude that such a test means nothing in the "real world".

This is deeply rooted and, along with the points mentioned by others, plays a large role in the reluctance to have standardized tests.


I read through the answers and am surprised no one mentioned that issue of bias against race and lower class. There is a history of tests being designed for white middle class students. Students from other backgrounds did poorly because they didn't have the background or context to understand the questions. The result was tests which gave further advantages to a group that was already perceived to have the advantages; similarly the tests gave educators an excuse to hold students back. In one glaring example from the 1960-1970's, my mother, a reading teacher, noticed a question: What color is your cheek? An African American student picked brown but of course that was marked wrong because the correct answer was pink.

In the US where there are so many minorities, a goal of equality, and a history of racial inequality, these tests were greatly criticized by many.

Many of the problems are being addressed today, but they still exist. An attempt has been made by makers of standardized math tests, to use simpler vocabulary and to avoid word problems in standardized tests about situations that would be unfamiliar to lower class children.

  • $\begingroup$ From your first sentence I thought you were going to make the opposite argument. (Namely: Standardized tests are meritocratic, thus giving minorities a better chance. They were therefore disliked by the white majority.) The "cultural bias in tests" argument has always struck me as utterly trivial and a weak excuse. I am a foreigner to the US, but took the SAT, GRE, and plenty of exams while in the US. Maybe once in a while there'd be a culturally biased question (e.g. math questions with American football or baseball as the theme), but it would've been a pathetic excuse to use for poor grades. $\endgroup$ – Kenny LJ Oct 13 '16 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ Your answer would also suggest that the popularity of standardized tests is positively correlated to the level of racism in the US. We'd therefore expect that standardized tests (1) were more popular in the past than today (the past being more racist); and (2) are today more popular in the South than in the North (the South being more racist). Both propositions I seriously doubt. $\endgroup$ – Kenny LJ Oct 13 '16 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ The fact that you did well on the SAT and GRE as a foreigner doesn't counter my argument. This question, as I understood it, is talking about standardized tests for elementary and high school students which are different than SATs and GREs. The fact that you are a foreigner speaks of a different experiences, but not the poorer background that I was referring to including no exposure to reading material at home and fewer rich experiences. $\endgroup$ – Amy B Oct 14 '16 at 13:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't believe that you can conclude from what I said that standardized tests are positive correlated with racisim. That would presume that the average person is aware of racial bias on the tests. I was talking about educators who are aware of the racial bias and frustrated. $\endgroup$ – Amy B Oct 14 '16 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Finally I don't believe this lack of merit is a primary cause of dissatisfaction, but in fact many of the answers given including test anxiety and teaching to the test are greater causes of dissatisfaction. $\endgroup$ – Amy B Oct 14 '16 at 13:06

Kenny LJ failed to say when he took those tests. As another person pointed out, some of the ones mentioned were possibly less subject to cultural bias in the first place but bias really surfaced as an issue in the 60's and 70's (1974 episode “The IQ Test” of the sitcom Good Times and appeared in scholarly journals in the 80's (Williams, Teresa Scotton. "Some Issues in the Standardized Testing of Minority Students." Journal of Education, v 165 n2 pgs 192-208, Spring 1983).

The earliest mention I found was an article from The Atlantic about the bias question which went into some history. ["Lemann found an item in the diary of Henry Chauncey, the first president of ETS, showing that he had read an article in the April 1948 issue of The Scientific Monthly arguing that tests like the SAT could be biased against low-income students. But Chauncey dismissed it as a 'radical point of view.'"] So mentioned in 1948 as maybe a problem but dismissed as radical by a major testing organization.

There appear to be lots of articles in science and education journals in the 90's so I would guess bases on the information here and my parent's discussions as educators, that the issue of removal of cultural bias really gathered steam in the 70's and 80's with later decades being measurement of the results of removal and/or efforts to make sure it wasn't creeping in again.

And, as other responders have mentioned, a key component of the resistance to standardized testing has been our rabid demand for local control of schools because you never know what those other people will want to teach your kids (like evolution or sex ed or using Harry Potter books with witches in the classroom or any of numerous other hot-button issues).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.