Unanswered questions about standardized tests
By Valerie Strauss
Some questions to ask about standardized tests. Are they worth the billions we have spent on them? Only if you think narrowing the curriculum and cutting out critical thinking, creativity, and inventiveness is crucial to our national survival. Otherwise, why aren’t YOU asking these questions?
This was written by Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.
By Marion Brady
Standardized tests are enhancing and destroying reputations, opening and closing doors of opportunity, raising and lowering property values, starting and ending professional careers, determining the life chances of the young, and shaping the intellectual resources upon which America’s future largely hinges.
You might think that with so much riding on the tests, every civic-minded person in the country would be demanding transparency, proof of validity, assurance that every item on every test had been examined from every possible perspective.
If you think that, you think wrong. The corporately engineered education “reform” campaign has been so slick that standardized testing is now taken for granted. The issue isn’t to test or not to test, but how to squeeze them all in.
America has bought an education pig in a poke peddled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies, and packaged by Congress. The animal is a freak, shaped by naiveté, political ideology, unexamined assumptions, ignorance of history, and myths.
This vast experiment with kids’ minds and America’s future was put in place without broad national debate, without in-depth research, without trial pilot programs, and without answering questions posed again and again by those who know something about teaching—know about it because, unlike those making policy, they’ve actually taught.
Questions, it goes without saying, are important. All human-made disasters have at least one thing in common—those responsible acted without first asking good questions.
Here are some of the questions educators ask that have yet to be answered. Decide for yourself if ignoring them doesn’t guarantee educational and cultural disaster:
1. Given the near-instant accessibility of information made possible by the Internet, the traditional emphasis on learners storing information in their heads no longer makes much sense. The young need to learn to process and apply information, tasks that require them to infer, hypothesize, synthesize, relate, generalize, value, and so on.
Questions: Have standardized tests made the switch from measuring how much information test-takers can remember, to measuring their ability to process and apply information? If so, are the computers that process the tests able to tell the difference between, say, good hypotheses, generalizations, and value judgments, and fair or poor ones?
2. As small children and illiterates prove, and everyone’s daily experience demonstrates, there are myriad ways of learning that don’t involve reading words or playing with numbers. Indeed, most of what most people know hasn’t been learned that way.
Questions: Are test items that require mere manipulation of symbols robbing America of broad and deep pools of talent and experience more complex than paper-and-pencil tests can measure? Are those who learn in ways that aren’t tested being stamped “Not Very Smart” and shoved aside or out?
3. In times of rapid and accelerating social change such as the present era, the ability to abandon attachment to the status quo and adapt to complicated, unexpected realities is essential to survival. Adaptation requires imagination, creativity, originality, ingenuity, vision.
Questions: Can standardized tests measure and attach useful numbers to gradations of these qualities? If they can, why are they not already doing so?
4. It’s assumed that standardized tests measure test-taker knowledge. What they actually measure is something else—test-taker ability to guess what the writer of a particular test item was thinking.
Standardized tests are created by and for the dominant culture. They will, then, reflect that culture. Even the sequence in which words appear in a sentence can make a difference in the ability of a test-taker reared in a subculture to guess what the dominant-culture writer of the test item was thinking. To be fair and useful, writer and reader must be culturally aligned.
Questions: How likely is it that in a society as culturally diverse as is ours, anything even close to an acceptable level of writer-reader alignment can be achieved? Is lack of alignment a major reason for the so-called “achievement gap,” or is it merely illustrating what Albert Einstein was talking about when he said that if we judged a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it would spend its whole life believing it was stupid?
Those barely begin a list of unanswered questions about standardized test items. Who decides what’s important enough to test? Using what criteria? How wise is it to hand schools over to corporations or other organizations with their own agendas? Since “hands-on” learning doesn’t lend itself to standardized testing, are the tests shoving education even farther away from how humans learn best? Is the drive to standardize kids stifling the human diversity essential to societal functioning?
Does limiting teacher autonomy by simplistic “remote” testing make the profession unappealing to those with the most to offer the young? Is ever-greater centralization of decision-making at odds with democratic values? Are standardized tests diverting attention from a whole range of valuable skills, such as the ability to play a musical instrument, draw a picture, tell a story, swim a stream, repair an air conditioner, nurture a plant, care for others? Where’s the research proving there’s a relationship between standardized test scores and making a living and a life?
These and similar questions about standardized testing are central to educating. For at least two decades, the questions have been directed to the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, a succession of Administrations, liberal and conservative think tanks, and officials in several states. I know this for a fact because I’ve asked the questions myself, beginning pre-Internet, when doing so required hard copy letters and U.S. postage.
The questions remain not just unanswered, but unacknowledged.
Choose your explanation for the refusal of those in authority to answer the questions. I’ve chosen mine: Policymaker ignorance and arrogance. It may also be that certain corporate types think standardized tests help shape an amiable, compliant workforce.
Do educators need to be held accountable? Absolutely. But using standardized tests for that purpose parallels the Vietnam-era logic of destroying a village in order to save it.