Is Standardized Testing a Necessary Evil in K-12 Education?

"[T]he reality is, when it comes to our students, it does not matter if we personally believe in the necessity of standards or the benefits of standardized testing. ...[W]e cannot let personal frustrations and opinions hold our students back."
Marisa Adams, in "The Necessary Evil of Standardized Testing" on, January, 2015

Ms. Adams' blog post defends compliance with testing policies and practices as the best course for students and, regardless of where anyone stands on the testing issue, there is an important point in this quote.

Getting an education is the central defining goal of the existence of our schools, so, it would, naturally, be heinous to hold students back from it.

However, we cannot let potentially misguided standardized testing practices and policies hold our students back, either.

Be patient for a moment to consider a parallel example:

What if state and federal building code authorities came into existence and then imposed a requirement that the foundation of your house had to be made of bricks, but also banned mortar and all other means of securing the bricks to each other or anything else?

I am sure there would be some who would argue that compliance with the legal authority of federal building code should take precedence over "personal frustrations and opinions."

However, you would be a fool to comply.

This policy would inevitably lead to the foundation of your house being unstable and occupying the house would put your entire family, all your visitors, and your family's personal property at risk.

It is for good reason that foundations are not only made of solid material parts, like bricks, but solidly secured into a unified whole and attached to the structures they hold up.

If the foundation is cobbled together piecemeal, then all that you have invested in making your house into a wonderful home is at risk of being lost to the next big storm or a minor earthquake.

It is our duty to make sure the foundation of education is secured into a unified whole and can reliably support the structures that depend on its integrity.

All the proven teaching techniques, carefully designed curricula, authentic assessments, good teachers, up-to-date facilities, well-funded innovative transparent accountable school models, etc. are at risk of being lost to the next political storm or economic earthquake because in most K-12 schools the foundations of education currently lack integrity.

We are trying to make school into a wonderful education home, but we are being fools so long as we do not prioritize investing in a solid foundation to support the house.

This is not an easy task to take on because working on the foundation is a frustrating process.

It goes against the grain of what is most popular in the media dialogue about schools right now and some popular ideas about what makes for good teaching.

It also doesn't help that most of the mechanisms that undermine the foundation of good learning occur within the hidden curriculum, not in the arena of things that schools and education policy makers are explicit about.

The evil that is hidden is particularly difficult to fight.

However, Ms. Adams is correct to point out that we should do what is right for our students independent of our "personal frustrations and opinions."

The question is how to discern the practices and policies that contribute to education from those that hold students back from it.

What causes students to become educated?

What are the necessary elements that students must experience in order to move forward into becoming educated?

Current state and federal policies implicitly suggest that high stakes standardized testing and curriculum standardization cause students to become educated, thus we are admonished by Ms. Adams not to interfere with the operation of these policy-imposed "educational" practices based merely on "personal frustrations and opinions."

As an education psychologist who has published research on motivation in educational settings, I have to question her assumption about standardized testing practices.

Discerning Causality in Education

The scientific research community has weighed in on the causal factors for education for decades.

Discerning causal from correlational factors is the central defining goal of science.

Psychology is the field within science that takes primary responsibility for identifying the causes of human behavior.

Education psychology researchers, like myself, do not have clear answers for every practice and there is not a lot of work directly looking at the causal efficacy of education policies.

But, there is clarity about the necessary foundation upon which all education is built.

That scientifically established causal foundation for education is support for students to meet their primary human needs.

There are eight needs that have well-established scientific validation: air, water, food, sleep, shelter, relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

The first five are probably sensible to most people, but the other three are too often not familiar.

Here's what is meant by those terms:

  • Relatedness, a.k.a. belonging or attachment, is the perception of being connected to and recognized by other people.*
  • Competence is the perception of being effective at achieving goals in a situation.**
  • Autonomy is the perception of being the causal and volitional source of your own activities.***

Scientific research shows that these three needs are the necessary components of psychological well-being and constitute vitally important parts of the foundation of education along with the other, more generally well-known, primary needs.

Given that the foundation of education is the satisfaction of primary human needs, then it is important to look at the impact of the standardized testing policies on these foundations in order to discern whether they are, in fact, educational.

If those standardized testing policies undermine one or more of the very foundations of education, then they are not appropriate policies, no matter what history led to their being enacted (another element of Ms. Adams' defense of compliance).

If, on the other hand, they do nothing to undermine the foundation of education, then it is at least possible that they are appropriate and, as Ms. Adams advises, putting personal issues aside to comply with standardized testing is proper.

Isn't it ironic that Ms. Adams called standardized testing "evil" in the title of her post promoting compliance with the policies and practices that implement it?

Her title brought to my mind the following famous lyrics:

"We don't need no education

We don't need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teachers leave them kids alone

Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

All in all it's just another brick in the wall.

All in all you're just another brick in the wall."

"Another Brick In The Wall" by Pink Floyd

Based on what I've learned as an education psychologist, I have a new take on this song.

Consider the possibility that the song is not challenging us to be, or not to be, bricks.

We are bricks and there is nothing we can do about that.

But there are some things we can do.

First, do not allow yourself to be put into a wall that is based on the neglect and/or thwarting of primary psychological needs.

"Dark sarcasm in the classroom" is a lament for the past psychological harms that occurred within the school system and the song calls us to ensure that they do not continue into the future.

The call is to become solidly interconnected parts of a proper foundation for education.

(I take the use of the term "education" in the line "We don't need no education" to be the use of the songwriter's license to refer to schooling rather than the process of becoming educated.

The lyric would be absurd otherwise.)

It is imperative that we each insist that our strength and solidity be part of an integrated system of supporting primary human needs in all K-12 schools.

Only then can all the proven teaching techniques, carefully designed curricula, authentic assessments, good teachers, up-to-date facilities, well-funded innovative transparent accountable school models, etc. that build on the foundation reliably fulfill the purpose of educating our children.

We must stand together to ensure that the true foundation of education becomes a unified whole in both policy and practice in K-12 and never allow it to be compromised.

In education, we are the solid bricks and the policies and practices that enable and encourage us to mutually support each other's human needs are the mortar that binds us into a unified whole that holds up all those other aspects of schooling.

Answering the Question of Standardized Testing

The argument for standardized testing as a necessity for educating students is weak, at best.

Due to historical accidents of misguided bureaucratic imposition by politicians ignorant of the true foundations of education, some teachers may view standardized testing as a necessity because fighting it might put their jobs at risk.

Standardized testing does deserve the label "evil" exactly to the degree that it compromises the autonomy, competence, and relatedness of teachers and students.

So my answer to the original question is that standardized testing should not be considered necessary and it can be evil.

I am open to the possibility that non-evil implementations of standardized testing are possible, but I am skeptical and would want any implementation of it to be carefully monitored for negative impacts on primary psychological needs.

And also subsequently modified until the negative impacts are eliminated even if that necessitated the elimination of the standardized testing itself.

Click here to read about the Oversimplification of Educational Reform.


* Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Self-regulation and the problem of human autonomy: Does psychology need choice, self-determination, and will?. Journal of Personality 74(6), DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00420.x Back to text

** MacIver, D. J., Stipek, D. J., & Daniels, D. H. (1991). Explaining within-semester changes in student effort in junior high school and senior high school courses. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 201-211. DOI: 10.1037/0022- 0663.83.2.201 Back to text

*** Reeve, J., Nix, G., & Hamm, D. (2003). Testing models of the experience of self- determination in intrinsic motivation and the conundrum of choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 375-392. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.95.2.375

To clarify the definition of autonomy: consider the distinction between "causal" and "volitional" sources of behavior.

Imagine that you are in the doctor's office and s/he brings out the reflex hammer and aims it just below one of your knee caps at your patellar tendon. When the hammer strikes your tendon your lower leg kicks out indicating that your reflex is normal.

That action by your body is clearly caused by an internal process, the reflex, while the hammer played only a small role by triggering the process that resulted in the movement.

In that situation you understand that your body was the causal source of your leg's movement, but you also realize that neither you nor your body were the volitional source.

The doctor was in control of the hammer, not you.

In this instance you would feel that the movement of your lower leg was not an autonomous decision; it was the doctor's, not your's.

An interesting nuance in this definition is that personal choice is not strictly necessary.

This doctor's office scenario holds true only as long as we are assuming the typical professionally distant relationship between you and your doctor.

If, on the other hand, the person wielding the hammer was an intimate other, then it is possible that you could feel so closely connected to that particular other person (and presuming that their wielding of the tiny reflex hammer is not the least bit threatening), that, even though you did NOT personally make the choice that lead to the movement, you could still feel that it was an autonomous act.

Personal choice is typically equated with autonomy (especially in the West), but it turns out that it is not strictly necessary. Back to text