Stop the Standardized Test Tyranny
Standardized testing is a poor way to judge how well schools educate their students. Pro or con?
Pro: An Overhyped Snapshot
Here’s an idea. Rather than analyze student GPAs to track long-term performance, let’s create a set of standardized tests and hinge school budgets on how well their pupils do. What if Johnny or Suzie has a bad day and doesn’t answer enough questions correctly? Well, we’ll just cut the school’s funding. That’ll improve education standards in this country.
Or maybe not. Standardized tests like the ones developed on a state-by-state basis under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), are random snapshots that evaluate every student based on the same set of criteria. That may be fine for inspecting machines, but humans excel in different things and have different talents. A generic test is no substitute for looking at the overall academic accomplishments of a student.
Even worse, hinging the fate of the school and staff salaries on the results of these generic tests gives teachers a strong incentive to just teach the test and sacrifice classes that could help their pupils figure out their talents and what they want to study in college. So not only do students end up just studying a test during their education, but their results are not a good measure of their abilities since they’re being specifically coached. It also invites cheating on the part of teachers and unsavory moves by administrators such as pushing out underachieving students to raise their schools’ average scores.
Finally, it’s much more likely that underfunded schools lacking in teachers and textbooks will be the ones scoring lowest. They already don’t have the money to teach, and now they’ll have even less. While we leave no child behind on paper, we’re wreaking havoc on the education system with our misplaced trust in standardized testing.
Con: Perpetuating an Unfair Cycle
By the time students graduate from schools and go on to post-secondary education, we expect them to know certain basics. They need to be able to answer math, reading comprehension, writing, and general science questions at a certain grade level, or the school did a substandard job of educating them. While GPAs are important criteria for measuring long-term academic achievement, they can’t tell us how well students know the basics required or if they will perform well in colleges and at any job without having to take remedial classes to catch up to other students.
If schools decide to teach the test instead of letting students explore their options and talents, it should be taken as a sign that the district has made a choice to adhere to a different set of priorities than those of both students and parents. A teach-the-test policy is a red flag for a potential problem since there’s no reason the basics being measured on the test can’t be learned in parallel with pupils’ self-exploration. In this case, standardized tests help figure out whether the schools are effectively teaching the knowledge they’re required to impart to their students.
It’s true that already underfunded schools will have a higher likelihood of failing the test, and it seems cruel to cut funding to a struggling district. However, when administrators are reminded that the survival of the school depends on their ability to make sure children are getting a good education that will be a firm foundation for their later academic and career achievements, they’ll be more persuaded to focus all their efforts on making sure that students know the basics. Giving them even more money without any sign of improvement just lets them know that it’s okay if they fail to do their duty—they will get their cash anyway.—G.F.