Take This Test and Shove It

There’s nothing inherently wrong with standardized testing. SAT, ACT, GRE, STARR, TAKS, and other such exams can offer us a benchmark of shared knowledge. While I willingly admit that such tests have cultural biases, from a practical standpoint we might also note that doing well on these exams offers access to power. In other words, the exams, for better or for worse, do represent certain academic values and they offer us insight into where our students stand with regards to understanding those values.

We do something similar in our classes on a smaller scale all the time. Every 6 weeks or so, I give a “standardized” exam to my students. The exam measures their performance on information we’ve covered in the class and I have a yard stick allowing me to see where each student stands. Each student takes the same exam with the same questions.

By the end of the semester, my students have taken 3 or 4 such tests, completed some other assignments, and we can use their performance to determine how well they understand the material from the course. While each exam might be important, no single exam is so high stakes it controls the final grade. Such a process has been in place educationally for a good while now. It works because it holds students accountable but also judges them based on the totality of their work. Students who perform at a high level earn high grades, but a student doesn’t have to be perfect to earn a passing grade. Sometimes, heaven forbid (and don’t tell their parents), they are simply average in their understanding.

My exams and other performance measures certainly aren’t perfect, but they do reflect the information I find most valuable for any given class. Some classes ask students to know more facts and figures; others ask students to apply material or perform a task. All of the exams, though, represent a professional opinion regarding the most important information discussed in the class. Exams reflect the academic values of the teacher.

Certainly, I might find it useful to see how and where my students “fit” with regard to other students of similar age and education. State or national standardized tests offer us that opportunity. You say your high school has a rigorous science program and you teach the ideas, concepts, and facts the profession finds important? Great. Good work. Let’s find out where your strengths and weaknesses might lie. We can then highlight your strengths and find ways to improve your weak areas.

Each year we start the process all over again. Amazingly enough, such a process has helped America become one of the most literate countries in the industrialized world and has helped create a university system that is the envy of the world. We may not be first on those “world-wide measures” of academic performance, but no one else in the world tries to offer every child an equal education. And last time I checked, things are going pretty well around here.

Naturally,  we can’t leave well enough alone s0 we have spent the last 10 or 15 years in education completing undercutting any sort of constructive exam process by creating high stakes testing and performance measures that, essentially, punish both students and schools if a student under-performs on one exam. Instead of using larger state-wide testing to identify areas of weakness that might allow us to improve, we have developed a state-wide minimum skills test that we use as a hammer to punish.

Texas, long a leader in educational “reform” willing to put its taxpayer dollars where its governor’s mouth is, pays $1.2 billion (that’s a B) to Pearson to cover the costs of STAAR testing. (Because, of course, no one in Texas is capable of writing a standardized test.) We have spent a decade attacking public education with nearly constant “reforms” designed to hold educators “accountable” for their student performance (all the while, of course, cutting funding and trying desperately to create charter schools).

As I noted a few days ago, there’s nothing evil about wanting students to have a base-level of information. Certainly, we can all agree that an educated high school student will know how our political system works (or how it works in theory because it clearly doesn’t work in practice anymore), know how to multiply, understand the basic laws of nature, and have a certain vocabulary. These might or might not be separate from some higher level skills depending on the age of the student. We can’t make everyone a great critical thinker, but I’m fairly certain we can teach everyone how to multiply 9X9, understand the basics of gravity, and remember George Washington is one important dude in American history. (Actually, as I write that statement, I also realize how naive I sound but bear with me.)

What bothers me the most about standardized tests, though, isn’t the exorbitant cost. Sure, $1.2 BILLION might seem like a lot of money (and don’t forget to add millions more in indirect costs), but Texas has a trillion dollar economy so this is couch change in the big picture. Likewise, the worst part isn’t that standardized, high stakes testing simply increases the industrialized concept of education. The assumption behind such testing is that learning takes place in this linear process where intelligence and intellect is easily measured, assessed, and accounted for. Picture Charlie Chalpin (or Lucille Ball) on the assembly line. Diane Ravitch calls standardized testing companies vampires as they suck the life-blood out of the classroom.

The real, long term destructive power of standardized testing is the fact that we use them as bludgeons to beat teachers and students and that use implies a distrust of teachers. In essence, we daily attack the professionalism of our teachers. We are, without a doubt, hiding our collective political disdain for education professionals behind a desire to “improve performance” using STAAR (or TAKS or any other set of letters). The long term cost is high turnover and fewer highly qualified people willing to consider teaching as a viable profession. Not only do standardized tests and curriculum turn the classroom into an assembly line, they remove the creative energy from those in the front of the room.

And when teachers go through the motions, so do the students. That’s not exactly the standardization we need.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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