Do Our Tests Live Up to the Test?


Mary-Jane clad little feet patter into a brightly colored kindergarten classroom. Legs are folded pretzel-style on a circular rug, and rosy cheeks turn up to face the looming figure about to open his or her mouth. Energy filled “outdoor voices” fall to whispers, and then, with a movement of fingers to lips and a chorus of “shhh,” to silence. Kindergarten, as Professor Jim Farrell pointed out in our Campus Ecology course this morning, is the place where we all learn to “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” It is where our learning begins–academically and (perhaps even more importantly) culturally. Between those 4 walls where coloring between the lines is competitive and ABCs are stressful, we learn what is expected of us. We are asked what we want to be “when we grow up.” So, who decides what we will learn over the next 12+ years of our education? Who determines how successful we will be and how smart we think we are? Who will plant goals in our minds and teach us how to be a part of the “free” structure of American society? Why do we trust them? How do we “choose” them? Diane Ravitch, former counselor to the Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, appointed to the National Assessment Governing board by Clinton, and NYU professor, explores these questions within her book:  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Examining her own transformation of opinions about various aspects of education over the past two decades, Ravitch presents issues like standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, national standards, and curriculum from varying perspectives in the opening chapters of the book. Studying her well-crafted analysis of her own questioning, (and search for answers) I found myself asking plenty of questions of my own.

For example, a topic I have been tangling with this week (because it relates to, well, everything) is that of experts and trends. From raising our children, to the shoes we buy, the words we choose, the groceries we consume, and the way we educate our youth, trends have been a part of life since the beginning of the United States. As Ravitch points out in reference to education and trends: “We as a society cannot extricate ourselves from fads and nostrums unless we carefully look at how we got entangled in them…we certainly cannot address our problems unless we are willing to examine the evidence about proposed solutions, without fear, favor, or preconceptions” (13). This is easier said than done. It seems to be in our nature as Americans to be followers while trying to constantly look like we are actually “pioneers.” This is seen in our education system with our dangerous obsession with ranking and test scores. In this trend, (explained by Ravitch as accountability) we lose sight of the actual purpose of education. As we try to maintain unrealistic and inconsistent numerical standards of academic achievement so that we can keep up with the rest of the world (and create the façade that we are outperforming it,) we forget to factor into our curriculum the wants and needs of the children, and we end up churning out a population of robotic citizens who measure success in GPA points and starting salaries. We train our students and our teachers rather than educating them. Filling out a bubble becomes more important than forming a thought or opinion.

I was particularly disillusioned with Ravitch’s discussion of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, and the destructive power of “Balanced Literacy” and “Children First” in New York’s District 2 schools. Both of these projects began with good intentions: offering equal opportunities to all children through a systematic and enforced process of rule creation and reinforcement. However, their ramifications were not so positive. In the case of Balanced Literacy and the “Children First” program, those holding positions of power in school districts became dictators. Teachers and principles who did not follow extremely specific principles or manage to raise test scores were fired. No one disagreed with the authority (in this case, mayors Klein and Bloomberg of New York) out of fear. The public had no voice in the matter of public education. Teachers were constantly watched and corrected, and there was only one right way to present material. Educators were not trusted. Ravitch makes the recurring point that across the country we rate and grade and evaluate, but we don’t tell anyone how to improve. These ratings are completely inconsistent. To express some of the ridiculousness of this inconsistency, we need look no further than NCLB (No Child Left Behind.)

NCLB was initiated with the purpose of literally leaving behind not one child when it came to education and opportunity. This was expected to happen by testing every child in grades 3-8 evert year using state tests, and reform decisions would also be made by the states. Low-performing schools would get help from Washington, and students who found themselves in failing schools could move to better-performing schools (94). We can all agree that “leaving no child behind” is a good idea in theory. But what happens when you make national testing and standards voluntary and make “accountability” completely determined by states? In short: chaos, manipulation, and test-based learning. Every state ends up claiming they’ve made progress every year in order to maintain national recognition and funding. This means lowering the bar of what it means to “pass” a test, and encouraging educators to teach only with the goal of having their students reach “proficiency” in reading and math (this was the goal of the legislation–100 percent reading and math proficiency by 2014). From state to state, what it means to pass a subject on a standardized test can range from achieving the 6th percentile to the 77th (107). Teachers are told to forget everything but test prep. How is it that one of the most important systems in our country could be run so randomly? With NCLB, the education system and its standards became a playground of bullying, deceit, manipulation, and shuffling of minorities. It reminds me a lot of our national debt–we continue to spend billions of dollars that no longer exist. Why is this allowed? Juxtaposing NCLB and “Children First,” we see examples of how too much regulation and too little regulation in education standards can lead to failure and skewed goals. How can we find a balance?

Reading about arbitrary standards and rankings, I am reminded of the first day I ever filled in a test booklet. I was in first grade. We spent an hour learning how to correctly shade a lettered bubble, and how to eliminate multiple choice options. We should have been reading illustrated books or applying mathematical systems to primary colored blocks or writing numbers in chalk. We should have been discussing the life cycle of a butterfly, or picking dandelions outside to learn about the milk-like substance found inside. Instead, we were being conditioned to take tests that would define our success for the rest of our academic lives. We were learning how to “get by.” I wish that students in our American education system had more of a say in what they learn from an early age. I look at my college courses at St. Olaf, and I can see how I have been allowed to create my own meaning. I am able to make connections and apply my knowledge to the world off of this hill. I am able to intertwine the means (classroom material) with the ends (living a fulfilling life and attempting to improve the world…or at least my corner of it).

I do believe that there should be standards in education. I think it’s important to make sure the children of this country have a basic knowledge of the world and their place in it. I don’t think that setting up broad definitions of this knowledge in terms of standardized tested math and reading skills is cutting it. In my opinion, standards should be national and encompassing. They should cover all subjects–math, science, literature, art and the humanities, and maybe even social skills. They shouldn’t be tested by having students darken circles, but should be encompassing. They should be uniform in grading scale (avoiding the “passing” bias) but should also allow for some individuality to shine through. There should be guidelines for the curriculum taught in schools, but it shouldn’t be so strict that teachers and students feel caged. Everyone needs to have a say.

For example, Minnesota public schools are currently reviewing their standards for teaching history. I think that it is necessary to conduct reviews like this every few years, but I think that it should be done on a national level. Who decides what version of history our children learn? Is it impossible to teach a holistic version of history? Without bias?

It seems to me like once we get to college we are told that everything we learned in our hometowns was somehow wrong. It’s important to have nuances in our knowledge that make us individuals, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had basic parts of it we could share as a community? Logistically it might not be realistic, but what if we voted nationally for standards that could provide this common educational foundation? We need to uncover the “hidden curriculum” of our school systems–all of the aspects of education in America that go beyond what we actually learn (i.e. the way it is taught, why it is taught, what is expected in a classroom, what “success” means, and what the point of learning is.) Maybe we need to literally teach our students about the hidden curriculum–to show them the things they aren’t meant to see. We need to give our students the tools to make the most of their educations. We need to allow them to learn for the sake of learning, not for the narrow purpose of preparing for a test that is manipulative and confusing. We are trained to care only about grades, and then unfairly compared.

I don’t have any clear solutions. Even in writing this, I find myself thinking in circles. To test or not to test? How do you even measure progress and success? Who do we trust to tell us if we are good enough?At ages seven and eight, the kids I helped to pick out library books today in a second grade classroom at Greenvale Elementary School  already see themselves in terms of numbered reading levels. What do these levels mean? Who determined them and how? The kids don’t know the answers to these questions, but they have become experts of comparing and ranking. Being a 15 means you are superior to a level 2, and determines social lines. In a different classroom, different books are used to rank from level 1-5. Another example of inconsistency.

How are you supposed to develop a stable sense of self as a kid in America? This is a question educators should be trying to answer rather than focusing on how to make an individual state appear successful. Our children need to be prepared to face the world and develop a sense of an individual “calling” within it. Education should provide a way to find this–not a meaningless training period. The educators and authoritative figures we trust with the future of our children’s self esteem and identity should be well-equipped–educated to think and problem solve creatively rather than to fit a corporate-inspired system. For now, with the exploration of the second half of Ravitch’s impressive commentary as an inspiration,  I’ll keep brainstorming.

A side note:

This article, entitled  ”Is Test-Driven Educational Reform Sapping the Joy in Learning from the Nation’s Classrooms?” reflects upon many of the same questions and concerns I have raised in this post. Criticizing the “test-prep” competitive culture of our education system, it laments the loss of activities in classrooms where learning is synonymous with joy. As testing becomes more and more the focus, there is no longer time for activities like interactive field trips or opportunities to bring together the classroom and the “real world.” Somehow, we need to restructure our system so that the realm of the academic and the realm of the “real” coincide.


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4 Responses to Do Our Tests Live Up to the Test?

  1. Pingback: III. Testing: Authentic Assessment | growingupinamerica

  2. Pingback: Learning to be “Normal”: Playing the Education Game | growingupinamerica

  3. Pingback: Audacity and Humility: Becoming a Participant Observer in Students for Education Reform | growingupinamerica

  4. Pingback: Standardized Second Graders | growingupinamerica

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