The Irony of Standardized Testing

By Alan Haskvitz

Backed by a substantial grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a study revealed that half of Americans say U.S. schools are doing only a fair to poor job preparing kids for college and the work force and life.

College leaders and the general public are said to agree with this concern. Many colleges are offering a substantial number of remediation classes for newly admitted students so they can be ready for regular university classes.

It is so serious that the war in Iraq ranks below education as a concern of the general public especially knowing that education is the key to a prosperous country. But perhaps the greatest irony of this study is the fact that three-fourths of those polled believed schools place too much emphasis on courses that weren’t valued. Those valued the most were math and English. The sciences, arts, and physical education were at the bottom of the list or weren’t even mentioned. In other words, the public also stresses the same two subjects NCLB stresses. The irony is that these same responders to the poll felt that classroom work and homework are the best ways to measure learning and not standardized tests.

So the school system is caught in a Catch-22 situation where they must show improvement on test scores and harvest the ecstasy of public acclaim or risk the wrath of pronounced failure and the possibility of even losing control of their own schools under NCLB. Teaching the test becomes the way to success for the school, and, ironically, leaves the students unsuccessful. It is an end in itself.

At a recent meeting in Denver with one of the NCLB spokespeople I ascertained by the stock answers that the system is not going to change regardless of the arguments posed by teachers. The pat answer is that NCLB is good at showing the public that schools must do more to help every child and that means it is working. Thus testing is destined to be the Gordian knot of public school education until someone cuts it with the sword of commonsense. Teaching students to learn is being sacrificed for teaching them how to take the test. The why is being sacrificed for the what.

Another irony is that NCLB has standards for highly qualified teachers, but school districts are considering giving bonuses for—you guessed it, teachers whose students have higher test scores. Being highly qualified does not count for a bonus. Sixty percent of the public think that teachers who produce students who do well on standardized tests should be given a bonus even though they acknowledge that testing does not promote students being prepared for life. Learning to learn is not as important as test taking skills. Even the SAT creators admitted that the best criterion of success in college was the written essay. Not the standardized questions.

Indeed, at a meeting of the American Council on Education, the University of California President recommended that university admissions move from the standardized tests results and quantitative formulas and rely on a more comprehensive, holistic approach for student selections.

So where does that leave teachers? Well, they can try and maneuver the curriculum so that they can cover both the mandated lessons and create learning opportunities that promote real thinking strategies. Or, they can abandon any hope for a bonus and just teach the way they know is best for the student and be thankful they have tenure. Finally, they can start educating the public about what standardized testing is costing their children and society.

Ironically, the pubic is getting both what they want, an objective test score, and what they don’t want, students who lack the skills they need to enjoy the ecstasy of a well rounded life.