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Government-Mandated Standardized Tests For Schools

Schools have always used standardized tests to evaluate student progress. Although many colleges and universities have made tests optional, many still use standardized tests for admissions. One of the newer practices is using standardized tests by federal and state governments to monitor student performance in specific subject areas and assign ratings to local schools. These mandated tests are our focus here. What is their purpose, and how do they influence what students learn?

What are standardized tests? Why do students take them?

Standardized tests are assessments administered to students and adults under controlled and regulated conditions to assess an individual’s knowledge, skills, and aptitude. These tests require all test takers to answer the same or selected questions from a bank of possible questions. These tests also have a standard manner of scoring that allows for scores/performances to be compared to the other individuals who took the same test. 

As the figure below shows, standardized tests consume a significant portion of the school year – for high school students, about ten days a year out of a total school year of about 180 days. This estimate excludes additional class time to prepare for the exam.

Standardized testing was created for two primary reasons: to provide a quantitative measure of a student’s academic performance and to evaluate the performance of teachers, schools, and school districts. Using these tests helps establish a consistent benchmark for the level of achievement that should be met at each grade level, ensuring the same criteria are used for all students. In this way, standardized tests can be used to rank students for assignment to honors classes or to flag students who might benefit from additional resources.  

To evaluate the performance of teachers, schools, and school districts, individual test results are averaged to measure overall student performance. The goal is to identify which schools or teachers are especially effective in helping students learn. These results can be used to identify effective teaching techniques and learning environments that can be transferred to other schools. The other goal is incentivizing teachers and administrators to teach well, especially if school funding and teacher pay are tied to test results.

What is the federal government’s role in standardized tests?

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education collects standardized test data and gives each state a “report card” on the academic performance of local schools. Congress mandates that this report card be issued every two years for each state. The state governments each choose the specific assessment to be administered in reading, math, and science, meaning that the standardized tests used in a particular year vary across states. Local school districts must administer these tests to receive federal education funding. The results of these tests are aggregated into a “state report card” by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Underperforming schools can lose some federal education funding.  

Do mandated standardized tests work as intended?

The evidence is mixed. One problem is that federal policies designed to reward well-performing schools do not provide strong incentives to teachers and administrators. The federal government provides about 8% of K-12 school funding, so the consequences of cutting this assistance are small. In any case, cutting funding for a school with problematic test results may make it harder for them to hire good teachers, modify curriculums, and enhance their learning environments to improve test results.

The incentives are also small at the state level. The largest source of school funding in most districts is local property taxes. Thus, state governments have only modest rewards and punishments they can use in response to test results. Some states tie standardized test results to teacher pay so that teachers with high-performing students receive bonuses. Research on the effects of incentive-based teacher pay suggests connecting teacher pay to standardized test performance can result in higher test scores. 

At the same time, there are two critiques of using standardized tests in this way. One is that standardized tests may not be a good measurement of student performance, progress, or gaps in knowledge. If so, we may not be measuring actual achievement by working to improve standardized test scores. Other critics contend that standardized tests are neither objective nor accurate as non-academic factors, including access to health care, food insecurity, or poverty-related stress, can negatively impact test performance. As a result, schools with a disproportionate number of poor students may be penalized for low test scores, even though teachers are doing a good job and students are learning.  

An additional problem is a reliance on standardized tests to distribute funding or teacher bonuses may lead teachers to curve test scores or “teach to the test” – which may emphasize a narrow range of test-taking skills, devote excessive class time to practice exams and de-emphasize important areas of knowledge that are not included on the standardized tests. In extreme cases, some teachers and administrators have even been convicted for stealing test answers and distributing them to their students. 


Further Reading

National Education Association. (2020). History of Standardized Testing in the United States., accessed 07/31/2023.

Haladyna, T. M. (2006). Perils of Standardized Achievement Testing. Educational Horizons, 85(1), 30–43.

McGuinn, P. (2016). From No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act: Federalism and the Education Legacy of the Obama Administration. Publius: The Journal of Federalism,  46(3), 392–415,

Policy Brief: School Funding.  (ADD URL WHEN AVAILABLE)



What Are Standardized Tests? Why Do Students Take Them?

Council of the Great City Schools. (2015). Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools: An Inventory and Preliminary Analysis., accessed 08/10/2023.

Carver, R. P. (1992). What Do Standardized Tests of Reading Comprehension Measure in Terms of Efficiency, Accuracy, and Rate? Reading Research Quarterly, 27(4), 347–359.

The Glossary of Education Reform. (2015).  Standardized test definition. The Glossary of Education Reform., accessed 07/31/2023.

What Is The Federal Government’s Role In Standardized Tests?

Beaton, A. E., & Zwick, R. (1992). Overview of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Journal of Educational Statistics, 17(2), 95–109. 

Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. (20208). What is the Every Student Succeeds Act?, accessed 07/31/2023.

Do Mandated Standardized Tests Work As Intended?

National Education Association. (2020, June 25). History of Standardized Testing in the United States., accessed 07/31/2023.

 Au, W., & Gourd, K. (2013). Asinine Assessment: Why High-Stakes Testing Is Bad for Everyone, Including English Teachers. The English Journal, 103(1), 14–19. 

Heise, M. (2017). From No Child Left Behind to Every Student Succeeds: Back to a Future for Education Federalism. Columbia Law Review, 117(7), 1859–1896.

Camara, W., & Croft, M. (2020, April 10). Research tells us US standardized admissions tests benefit under-represented students. EdSource., accessed 07/31/2023.

Thomas, J. Y., & Brady, K. P. (2005). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act at 40: Equity, Accountability, and the Evolving Federal Role in Public Education. Review of Research in Education, 29, 51–67. 

Pham, L. D., Nguyen, T. D., & Springer, M. G. (2021). Teacher Merit Pay: A Meta-Analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 58(3), 527–566. 

Loyalka, P., Sylvia, S., Liu, C., Chu, J., and Shi, Y. (2019). Pay by Design: Teacher Performance Pay Design and the Distribution of Student Achievement. Journal of Labor Economics. 

Springer, M. G., Hamilton, L., McCaffrey, D. F., Ballou, D., Le, V. N., Pepper, M., … & Stecher, B. M. (2010). Teacher pay for performance: Experimental evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching. National Center on Performance Incentives.

Ryu, S., & Jinnai, Y. (2021). Effects of Monetary Incentives on Teacher Turnover: A Longitudinal Analysis. Public Personnel Management, 50(2), 205–231. 

Moses, M. S., & Nanna, M. J. (2007). The Testing Culture and the Persistence of High Stakes Testing Reforms. Education and Culture, 23(1), 55–72., W., & Gourd, K. (2013). Asinine Assessment: Why High-Stakes Testing Is Bad for Everyone, Including English Teachers. The English Journal, 103(1), 14–19.

Moses, M. S., & Nanna, M. J. (2007). The Testing Culture and the Persistence of High Stakes Testing Reforms. Education and Culture, 23(1), 55–72. 


This policy brief was researched in July 2023 by Policy vs Politics interns Mary Stafford and Zul Norin, drafted by Griffin Reid, and edited by Dr. Nicholas Clark and Dr. William Bianco, with the assistance of subject matter expert Matt Honohan.

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