Standardized tests are thermometers cooking turkeys



Standardized tests face much criticism from the public, and they should. Constantly stressing our kids with test after test after test after test is a bit much…neither parents nor kids like it much, and even the teachers don’t care for them beyond some minimal point.

One of the most common criticisms is that teachers end up teaching towards the test, but this is a false lead. Even without standardized tests, teachers taught towards the test. I mean, you’re going to give a test at some point, and your choice is either to teach the material on the test, or not. Why would you not? If you want your students to succeed, you’re going to teach towards the test. It’s a silly complaint, and distracts from the real issues.

While tests are overboard in public schools, something similar is going on in higher education. We call them “assessments”, but the principle is the same: collect information from the students. It may not be as stressful, perhaps, but every year when I was bringing a school through accreditation, we had to collect and evaluate assessments. The reason for this fascination with assessments in higher education is the same as for tests in public schools.

See, in the “old days”, schools were not huge. It was quite possible for a teacher to know what was going on with every student in the class, and a fake teacher simply could not survive…the other teachers, if not the parents, figured out what was going on quickly, and the useless teacher was removed. Now, schools are so huge that it’s pretty simple for students to fall through the cracks, which are now wide enough for the populations of entire towns to fall through.

In higher education, faculty used to oversee faculty…I remember when every semester an actual mathematics professor would come and observe my teaching, and I’d get feedback. Those days are gone; instead, at most institutions an administrator with no academic knowledge observes once a year. If you’re liked, you get a perfect score, if not liked, you’re destroyed…and there is no recourse. Anyway, there’s no way an incompetent teacher can be discovered in higher education. Heck, admin seems to prefer the incompetent, as long as such teachers give everyone A’s.

Because both “lower” and higher education is now set up in such a way to encourage incompetence, and because it’s plainly obvious by the many high school/college graduates with no apparent education, “something must be done.” Actually fixing things by reverting to systems of small schools and educator oversight that are known to work isn’t on the table, since doing that would get rid of all the administrators that are so necessary for large schools or in higher education.

So, we get tests, and assessments, as well as an extra boatload of administrators to deal with all the paperwork and recordkeeping for all the tests and assessments.

But what is done with all those tests and assessments? At my previous school, we assign, collect, and grade the assessments…then load them up into boxes where they’re probably sitting in some warehouse today, awaiting the end of time. Every year we’d collect perhaps a ton of paper this way. Nothing, ever, was done with them, beyond document (DOCUMENT!!!!) that we collected such assessments.

Although educators administer the tests, testo-crats took over education policy with the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2002, so now, what happens in the classroom is not nearly as important as what spits out of an algorithm designed by some wonk working in a cubicle in L’Enfant Plaza.

That’s higher education: lots of assessment, no decisions made from the assessments. What about all those high stakes tests? They’ve been doing that for years now, at least a decade. Say, has anyone noticed that nothing has changed? Of course not, nobody goes through public education twice, so nobody knows that what children get today, in terms of education, is the same as what they got 10 years ago. The only difference is a great deal of stress, and much more time filling out bubbles on standardized tests than sitting in a classroom (which, I concede, probably educates our students just as well). Oh, and there’s much more bureaucracy.

Remind me what the point of the tests is? To one state education official, the tests “will help improve early education,” which confuses things further. Remember, the thermometer doesn’t cook the meat…. The point of data isn’t data.

So we have this amazing fascination with standardized tests in our schools, and with every fraud that is revealed, we ask for more tests. Even though years of such testing has changed absolutely nothing, we’re still adding MORE tests, more assessments. Even when assessments at my college showed that some teachers were accepting obviously plagiarized coursework wholesale (I repeat, what went on at UNC is not unusual at all), nothing changed. The point of data IS data, when you’re an administrator with no understanding of anything.

I concede I’m a victim of this sort of thinking, since I proposed we have college graduates take the GRE in response to the issue of grade inflation and immense fraud in higher education, giving employers a legitimate way to tell if a graduate really knows anything more than he did coming out of high school. I’ll rationalize that my suggestion at least doesn’t add to the bureaucracy (the GRE already exists), adds only a single test to the 6 years students typically spend to get their degree (unlike the every few months of the public schools tests), and employers really should have some way to distinguish what little is legitimate amongst the massive flood of bogus degrees/coursework that is representative of higher education today (i.e., these tests would add huge value to the $100,000 or so people pay for degrees). Ultimately, I didn’t propose any change be made based on GRE scores, but at least the data would be available, unlike assessments which just go into a big warehouse, buried for all time.

I’ve also proposed the return of entrance exams, and I’m not alone in this, as the removal of entrance exams is what has created an unhinging between the syllabi and texts of community colleges, and the bogus/fake material that actually goes on in the community college courses. Again, more tests to get rid of fraud—actual decisions made from the assessments, which is unheard of in higher education today.

I’m not proposing that everyone, everywhere, take such tests. The only people that need to take entrance examinations are those that honestly want to go to college, instead of, just thinking of college as “that place you go to after high school.” I know, as long as administration controls entrance examinations, the school may as well be open admission for all the integrity such examinations will have.

Bottom line, fixing education will take a whole lot more than adding a few tests.