Why Do We Even Have Standardized Tests Anyway?

I sometimes wish my life had multiple-choice options. At least you would know that a right answer existed out of the four or five options. Not sure which college to go to? Choose C! Unsure of what to major in, why not pencil in choice B? What should you do after graduation? Go with choice A.

If only life was that simple.

Of course, that is an unrealistic future. We want the freedom of all the choices, to put in the work as we decide on our paths, but we just don’t teach our kids this way.

By and large, the majority of daily quizzes and tests are multiple-choice, or as kids who didn’t study call them, “multiple guess” assessments. It is just one tool in the deep bag of tricks for constant and rigorous assessment that have now become as synonymous with school, as much as a yellow #2 pencil and a marble notebook.

As a former teacher, I would inevitably receive transfer students mid-year. I would have to explain the class rules, but never the rules to fill out an answer sheet. Welcome to the age of standardized education.

The Beginning of Standardization

The history of how we got here is deep. As President Eisenhower saw the writing on the wall in his farewell address and warned of a growing military-industrial complex, so too have prophets cautioned against the emerging education-industrial complex. And just like unused tanks collecting dust in the desert, we are now funding millions of unnecessary standardized tests in a misguided effort to measure achievement. Standardized testing companies like CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing and NCS Pearson are enjoying a boom in profits thanks to our new infatuation with testing.

Of course, these million dollar companies continue to lobby on behalf of testing legislation and have managed to ensure that the ghost of the well-intentioned, disastrous No Child Left Behind law of 2001 is still roaming school halls.

Since the law’s inception, our international standing in reading and math has only declined but our spending on testing resources has increased. The Brookings Institute found this increase in spending in a roughly ten-year period to go up more than a billion dollars from $423 million in 2001 to $1.7 billion when the 2012 study was released.

Pretty soon, we will have students forced to take even more state exams because the Junior Representative from Rolling Meadows, Illinois needs to keep his seat. More tests, more profits, kids be damned. The educational-industrial complex is alive and well.

Accountability Gone Wrong

This is not a call to abolish all standardized testing, but it is a shout for the attention of parents to recognize the rat race they have unwittingly placed their kids in. Life is not multiple-choice. It does not track to a standard bell curve. Future problems don’t follow a script, but when our laws place punitive measures on schools for not showing adequate improvement, it is clear the system is set up for failure.

Our current system of school accountability is like going to the doctor and being diagnosed with high blood pressure and being told to bring it down. Then, you show up a year later with little improvement after having been given little instruction, so the doctor refuses to see you. How could you ever hope to get better? You need the doctor’s expert insights and resources to help improve your pressure, not threats and closures. We wouldn’t accept these punitive measures with our own health, yet we consent, perhaps unwittingly, to put our children and their education through this style of “reform.”

Not All Testing is Bad

In Australia, students are tested in grades 3,5,7, and 9 but their grades are not held in the same regard as here in the USA. Unlike our high-stakes testing which appears to create enormous stress and anxiety for all parties involved, Australia’s scores are seen as a diagnosis of where schools need to focus and improve as well as where legislators and administrators need to allocate funds and services. A poor grade on a state exam does not hold students back nor encourage “teaching to the test.” Most importantly, they do not emphasize the make or break atmosphere here in the US that one student voiced in this way, ““I feel like we have to take all these tests and if I pass the tests I live and if I don’t, I die.”

Exams in school cannot be life or death decisions, and even if this one student may be arguably dramatizing his feelings, we have done little to give him the tools to get through the anxiety and stress that high-stakes testing entails. School has stopped being fun and become one long slog of test preparation, but unlike the ACT, LSAT or GRE, to a middle schooler, the standardized road seems endless. We then wonder why students are eager to drop out.

We Must Determine the Intention of Education

We as a country have to determine the intention of our compulsory school system. Is it aimed at providing the basic skills necessary to survive in this world, or is it about providing the big picture skills that are needed to thrive in the 21st century? Right now, it happens to be a flavorless concoction of both. Students have lost the WHY behind what they are learning beyond, “to get a good grade so I can get into a good college.”

Is this the grand design of compulsory education? Are students only learning for some indistinct, ambiguous future with little to no application to personal interests or life? Noted school reformer John Dewey once said, “Education, therefore is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” What process are we teaching them? One of useless vocabulary words crammed the night before an exam and forgotten the next day?

This was surely not the intention of these tools of measurement that have been implemented across the country. Every adult understands what gets measured gets managed, and if we are to manage a disconnected national education system, results are important.

Yet, education is a process not a product. I would argue personal goal setting, resiliency and grit, creativity and true self-awareness alongside the standard problem solving and reading skills can be taught, measured and improved, but only if we do away with the outdated factory model of knowledge distribution.

The question remains: What is the intention of school? Ask ten people and hear ten different answers. However, ask a different question like “how do you learn?” You will quickly find consensus-- make it fun, by doing, by connecting it to your life or the real world, by setting a clear purpose, mix in a good teacher or mentor, and give the learner control. Now think back to your time in high school- how many of these factors were a part of your everyday learning life? How does relentless standardized testing fit in?

Maybe, just maybe, if the intention of school is to learn- then we should begin to design our schools, day, curriculum and testing around how we actually learn.


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